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Ball don’t lie – ‘Uncle Drew’

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Sometimes, you see a movie trailer and think “That looks terrible.” Other times, you see a trailer and think “I’d like to see that.” And every once in a while – rarely, but it happens – you get one that makes you think “That looks terrible. I’d like to see that.”

“Uncle Drew” very much falls into that third category.

The film – based solely on a character played by Kyrie Irving for a handful of Pepsi commercials wherein Irving would don a bunch of old-age makeup and prosthetics and proceed to humiliate people on various basketball courts. Pretty funny bit for a couple of minutes, sure - but for 90? With a Space Jam-esque collection of NBA players making up a significant portion of the supporting cast? Obviously, it was going to be terrible.

And even more obviously, it was going to delight me.

Dax (Lil Rel Howery, “Tag”) is a guy looking to make a big score. He’s dealing with a job at Foot Locker that he hates and a girlfriend named Jess (Tiffany Haddish, “Girls Trip”) with expensive tastes. His way out is to put together a team to win the prestigious Rucker basketball tournament. Things are looking good until his longtime rival Mookie (Nick Kroll, “The House”) swoops in and steals his best player, leading to Jess kicking Dax to the curb.

But when Dax crosses paths with NYC basketball legend Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) – who disappeared from the scene 40 years prior and had faded into myth – a last desperate shot at redemption appears. Uncle Drew agrees to play for Dax on one condition – he picks the players.

And so of course, Uncle Drew and Dax venture forth to reunite Drew’s long-ago squad. There’s Preacher (Chris Webber), who’s, well … a preacher. He wants to play, but has to face the disapproval of his wife Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie) to do it. Next up, they track down Lights (Reggie Miller), a great shooter who’s now legally blind; at the same retirement home, they meet up with Boots (Nate Robinson), who is wheelchair-bound and hasn’t spoken in ages. And finally, there’s Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal), a karate instructor who still bears a deep-seated grudge against Uncle Drew, but he still joins them.

The group – along with Maya (Erica Ash, “All I Wish”), who’s along for the ride to look after her grandfather Boots – doesn’t have long to figure it out. They need to shake off a lot of rust and they need to do it fast – and they need Dax to help them do it. Along the way, old friendships are renewed and new ones are begun, all while Uncle Drew dispenses nuggets of old-man wisdom framed by a love of the purity of basketball.

It’s as ridiculous and contrived as it sounds … and yet, it kind of works.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve always had a real soft spot for athletes trying to act. Their willingness to burst out of their comfort zone is impressive, even if the ultimate result usually isn’t. But even when they’re bad, they’re fun; there’s something I love about watching people so great in one arena be really not-great in another.

Obviously, “Uncle Drew” is a basketball movie, but even if the, you know, guys playing basketball didn’t give it away, screenwriter Jay Longino definitely wants to make sure you remember. A significant percentage of the dialogue is devoted to assorted winks to the NBA fanbase being awkwardly shoehorned into scenes; most of the time, it’s weird and forced (although a timeout-related bit with Chris Webber legitimately made me laugh). But here’s the thing – with very few exceptions, if you’ve got athletes trying to act, things are going to sound weird and forced regardless.

Irving is probably the best of the bunch, managing to come off as natural enough to keep us from looking too hard at the old-age effects. He’s got decent comedic timing and a not-terrible delivery; this of course immediately elevates him into the top tier of athlete screen performances. Not exceptional, mind you, but even OK puts you above the vast majority.

Shaq isn’t bad, although he relies solely on his primary note – that is, “being Shaq.” It’s a fine fit, so it works. Webber’s Preacher feels like a badly-thought-out impression of Arsenio Hall’s Reverend Brown from “Coming to America” ... and it's kind of awesome. Robinson is here because he’s small and looks funny with crazy old man hair. And Leslie’s actually pretty good in limited minutes.

Howery is funny as Dax, genuine and dopey. He’s likely as responsible as anyone for the quality of Irving’s performance; the dynamic between Dax and Uncle Drew is actually engaging. Not great, but good enough. Haddish cruises through her scenes, flashing her razor-sharp wit as she does so. And Kroll is a magnificent d-bag, irritating and infuriating and utterly hilarious; Mookie Bass is one of 2018’s best villains.

“Uncle Drew” isn’t much narratively. There’s not a lot of surprise or structure. But the basketball stuff is solid and watching athletes act is always a delight, while the performances of Howery, Irving and Kroll help raise the bar a bit. Not good, not bad, but certainly entertaining.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 06 July 2018 15:47

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