Directed by Charles Stone III
Written by Jay Longino
When Pepsi rolled out the original Uncle Drew commercials, featuring NBA star Kyrie Irving as an old man who schools the youngbloods on the local playground blacktop, they made a minor splash in pop culture, specifically the basketball world. So of course, when it was announced that a movie based on the character was in development, it was a little head scratching given there isn’t a great track record for successful movies based on characters from a 30 second commercial. However, I am of the generation that grew up with and loved Space Jam, which took current NBA stars and turned them into movie stars. The critics disagreed, but as a young sports fan, I loved seeing my heroes on the big screen, utilizing their personalities for entertainment and seeing them dunk on the Monstars. Could Uncle Drew be this generation’s Space Jam, a movie that entertains basketball fans but is generally panned by critics? We shall see.
Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) is merely a legend to today’s New York City ballers hoping to make their stamp on the famous Rucker Park tournament, but when Dax (Lil Rel Howrey) loses his star player (Aaron Gordon) to his rival (Nick Kroll) just before the tournament, he must strike up a friendship with Uncle Drew to head his new team. The two travel the area to recruit Uncle Drew’s old team, which includes Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (Shaq). But before the team can excel on the court, where they hope to once again restore true basketball to the playground, they must overcome their own long brewing animosity in order to come together to play team ball. Dax, meanwhile, is on a mission of redemption not only from childhood embarrassment, but also the embarrassment of his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) leaving him for his rival.
To begin, the story at play here deals in very broad strokes and is paper thin narrative work. However, odd as it may be to say, the story is only a small percentage of what this movie is attempting to accomplish. True, in fact very true, this is a very corporate commercial for Pepsi and a few other brands. There is no avoiding that point. But once you look past the product placement and thin story, what you get is a movie that loves basketball, about characters that love basketball, and that passion comes through clearly while also assembling an otherwise amatuer cast who is more or less game to entertain. Where the movie often fails is trying to be overly sentimental and emotional. Where is soars is when it affords this pro basketball cast to show off their skills on the court, and allows them the chance to be comedians. It often helps too when the comedic talents of Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll help lead the bunch.
Kyrie Irving et al. are surprisingly not as bad at acting as I would have thought. That is not to say they are good, and in fact they stick out far more often than they blend in, but I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t a trainwreck from a performance standpoint. Minor win? I suppose so. But as I said, what truly fuels this film is its love of basketball. Director Charles Stone III, who already has a solid sports movie under his belt with Mr 3000, adds nothing to the film with his filmmaking sensibilities, save perhaps getting out of the way enough to let the amatuer cast have its fun, which pops off the screen in a very fun way. In the end, Uncle Drew is merely a film in which a bunch of pro basketball players who love the game get to play ball and have fun. As a result, there is some fun which translates on screen and is available to the audience, should they choose to embrace it.
I couldn’t help but think that basketball is likely the best sport to do this sort of project with. There are more personalities, and the NBA seems to have the sort of relationship with its fan base which allows for the amount of fun on display here. I with other sports leagues were able to follow suit and have their famous players showcase their sport on the big screen. I would welcome that kind of potential showcase of fun, especially as a major baseball fan. But if you take the NFL for example, they have a relationship with their players and fans that is tenuous at best, and one which is certainly not the right environment to produce such a film. So yea, Uncle Drew may be cheesy, it may be broad, its story may be actually pretty horrible, but in the end I can’t deny that I had fun with this. You be the judge, but I would move to not simply dismiss this movie as horrible.