By Jim Slotek
Being of a certain age, I’m a sucker for the premise of Uncle Drew. It hits me where I live to see heavily made-up NBA stars, current and retired, pretend to be senior citizens who humiliate “young bloods” a third their age.
It’s a silly, sentimental and sporadically very funny bit of fluff that, for what little it’s worth, may be the best sports movie ever inspired by a commercial (yes, even including the TV movie they spun off from Mean Joe Greene and The Kid).
Uncle Drew is taken from the series of Pepsi Max commercials which have run for years, featuring former Cleveland Cavalier and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving as a trash-talking septuagenarian “street baller” who’s still got game. By now, Uncle Drew is a second skin for Irving, who gives one of the better performances we’ve seen by a professional athlete (I think pro-wrestlers make the most natural actors, but NBA players have a pretty solid record, up to and including LeBron James’ surprisingly convincing portrayal of himself in Trainwreck).
Director Charles Stone III (Drumline) takes no longer than he has to, to deliver the gags, trash-talk and heartwarming message, Uncle Drew introduces us to Dax (Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery), an orphanage-raised kid whose hoop dreams were derailed when he missed a key shot in school, and who now sells shoes and dreams of coaching a team to a $100,000 championship at Harlem’s Rucker Park street-court tournament.
Unfortunately, Dax is haunted by, “the ghost of white boy past,” Mookie, the kid who blocked his shot and grew up to be his hated enemy (played with delicious maliciousness by Nick Kroll). On course to win the the big prize, courtesy of a gifted white kid with the on-the-nose name of Casper, Dax finds his dream derailed yet again when Mookie steals his star (and then steals his girlfriend, played by Tiffany Haddish with her diva-meter set on “11”).
Now in debt and without a team to coach, Dax spots an old man who schools a bunch of young hot-doggers on the court. He realizes he’s looking at the legendary Uncle Drew, long talked-about by NBAers and fans alike, who’d disappeared from the scene a half-century earlier. In his prime, they say, he could dunk over you, holding the ball in one hand and a sandwich in the other.
Initially reluctant to help Dax out, Uncle Drew eventually relents on the condition that he be allowed to create “his” team, from among his old (and I mean old) cronies. Ex-Pacer Reggie Miller is a blind man named Lights. Nate Robinson is a wheelchair-bound player named Boots. Ex-Fab Five member Chris Webber is Preacher, a man of the cloth who handles an about-to-be baptized baby back to front like he’s about to dribble him.
(Preacher, in turn, joins the team over the violent objections of his hellfire wife, played by the WNBA’s Lisa Leslie, who you know is going to be given the ball at some point).
And Shaquille O’Neal is the aptly-named Big Fella, a sensei teaching martial arts to children (Shaq Fu perhaps?). And he holds a nasty grudge against Uncle Drew for an offense a bit more serious than blocking a shot.
We needn’t worry that this over-the-hill gang is going to get its act together in time to strike a blow against ageism. There are dubious miracle cures, a reverse car chase with a blind man at the wheel and even a dance-off (Shaq, break-dancing at age 46, is a pretty good sight-gag in itself).
I am not describing a great movie here. But Uncle Drew is a goodhearted broad comedy, one where you don’t have to know the players (under all that latex) to enjoy the game.
Uncle Drew. Directed by Charles Stone III. Starring Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal. Opens wide, Friday, June 29.