Movie Review: Uncle Drew.
Uncle Drew is a throwback basketball comedy with big laughs when it overcomes some early stiffness.
Based on a mostly forgotten string of Pepsi commercials, Uncle Drew is an unlikely film to put it mildly. Stretching the concept of five NBA stars playing geriatric versions of themselves into a feature is a tough lift. Fortunately, good teamwork, solid skills on the court and respect for its elders elevate Uncle Drew above the empty calories of the concept.
Uncle Drew (2018)
Dax (Lil Rel Howery) is a man haunted by his thwarted dreams of playing basketball. As an adult, his new dream is of winning the Rucker Classic street ball tournament as a coach. Unfortunately, the bully (Nick Kroll) who crushed his childhood b-ball dreams is now an arrogant coach who has stolen his star players. Desperate, Dax turns to the urban legend of Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving), an unbeatable street ball star who went missing 40 years ago. He find the old man schooling young punks on the court and tries to recruit him. Drew’s one condition is that he put together his old team – the very team Uncle Drew betrayed as a brash young player.
Early Foul Trouble.
Uncle Drew gets off to a shaky start. Howery’s comedy doesn’t jibe well with the early supporting cast, mostly because they are chewing the scenery. Nick Kroll is obnoxiously over-the-top as the villain. His antics are less believable than 40 year-olds playing 80 year-olds whupping 20 year-olds at basketball. A few of his jokes land, but only because he never stops throwing them out there. It’s not a bullseye if you use buckshot.
Dax’s stereotypical gold digging girlfriend, played by Tiffany Haddish, is likewise over-playing her one note role. I can understand director Charles Stone III wanting villains to root against, but he made his two baddies unbearably awful. It’s a slog getting through the first 20-30 minutes with these characters. Luckily, the octogenarian ballers arrive to save the day.
Uncle Drew shows up just in time, and the film does a great job switching gears into a madcap comedy. The Sportscenter highlight reel of young drew balling is classic, and the way every old-timer in Brooklyn talks about him reminded me of the barbershop scene in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, where they all discuss Ali. Dax and Drew have good comedic timing selling the running gags of modern culture vs. old.
The movie really shines when Dax and Drew have to road trip to get the squad together. Each player is a big and memorable character with a unique impediment to be overcome. Watching the pair try to solve each was hilarious. The best is Preacher (Chris Webber) and his wife Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie). The whole endeavor to steal Preacher from his church while Betty Lou relentlessly chases them across the country felt like the best moments of the Blues Brothers distilled into a solid 30 minutes.
Fans of basketball films will want to know how the climactic tournament feels. I’d have to say the sports scenes were better than average but not exactly a high-light reel. There are some great jams, but there’s also too much compressed time to really get in the zone. It also features the classic canard of invincible players who suddenly can’t make a shot (on the good and bad guy teams) just so somebody else can step up. The real pleasure is how the old-timers almost never break character. Each’s impediment becomes their biggest strength, making for some great stylistic moments that are also funny.
Almost the GOAT.
Uncle Drew is nearly the complete package. The early stumbles and over-acted villains handicap it, but it finds its footing. A few parts could have been polished from good to great: the solid soundtrack of classic soul and funk is one or two deep cuts from being amazing, one of the recruitment missions is noticeably less developed than the rest, and the vintage clips that sizzled when it showed young Drew could have been extended to the other players to build their hype.
That would be my fantasy roster improvements, but I have to say I came away loving Uncle Drew. The old school characters were well done and well acted. Most of the comedy bits in the second act had me and the rest of the theater in stitches. I had to wipe tears away a few times, I was laughing that hard. The homages to classic comedies, music and golden era basketball give the film a distinct flavor. I don’t know if Uncle Drew will lace them up for a sequel, but I’d down for it.