Uncle Drew and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Charles Stone III
Has anyone been looking forward to this movie? I’m not the only one who thought this was going to be a very mediocre cash grab from that awful trailer with the bobble heads and the Sugarhill Gang song, right? Then again, I’m one of those darn Millennials who thinks that Space Jam is the height of basketball comedies, so maybe the lack of Warner Bros characters was throwing me off here but I still got a real bad feeling from this as it checks off a lot of bad comedy tropes. Old age makeup, retro soundtrack, goofy sports premise (“There’s no rule that says a dog can’t play basketball!”), all the favorites from movies that you may have liked as a kid but really doesn’t hold up now… except for Space Jam. Will this be a nostalgic throwback to the era of silly sports movies, or will this be more painful than if Tyler Perry did a Madea basketball movie? Well I’m pretty sure NOTHING would be worse than seeing Tyler Perry’s A Medea March Madness, but let’s find out!!
Down on his luck Dax (Lil Rel Howery) has been training his whole life to be a basketball player but decided to go into coaching after… the incident, and has a team that might just win a basketball tournament in Harlem known as the Rucker Classic and win a boat load of money which he’ll use to… I don’t know; pay his rent I guess. It all depends on his star player Casper (Aaron Gordon) who is PHENOMENAL on the court but kind of a douche in real life, and he’s been making eyes at fellow douche Mookie (Nick Kroll) who’s Dax’s big rival (especially after… the incident) and coached the last five teams to win the Rucker Classic. Sure enough, after draining Dax of all his money, Casper goes to join Mookie and the rest of the team just kind of goes away as well. Not only that but his girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish) kicks him out of the house because she was banking on that prize money and has no use for the shmuck now that he doesn’t have a chance to win it. Left with absolutely nothing but the clothes on his back and a spot in the tournament, Dax starts scouring the area for unaffiliated ball players but has no luck and is about to give up when he sees an old man school one of the young dudes in basketball; showing him the value of fundamentals over being able to show off. The old man turns out to be Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) who was a legendary basketball player in Harlem that disappeared forty years ago under dubious circumstances, and he might just be the man Dax needs to avoid living on a park bench! Uncle Drew agrees to play for him, but only if they find the rest of his old team (Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson) to play as well. And so they’re off on a road trip to find Uncle Drew’s old friends, mend some bridges, learn some lessons, and play basketball against dudes a quarter their age! Will Uncle Drew be able to show these youngsters what it means to be a TRUE player of the game while also making up for the mistakes he made all those years ago? What chances do these older gentlemen have against Mookie’s team, and will Dax be able to get past… the incident? Did you know there’s a new Shaq Fu game? I wonder if this is some sort of crossover…
This movie is… fine. It’s not good, in fact it’s mostly bad, but it DOES have a heart to it that automatically puts it a step above mean spirited fare like Gringo and Daddy’s Home 2, even if that heart is of the most manufactured and stock variety. It’s very reminiscent of the kind of films Eddie Murphy was doing in the mid to late nineties like the Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle, which I guess a certain cache of nostalgia and charm at this point, but even then those were hardly the high points of comedy and that’s no exception here as the jokes are rather flat, the premise is underdeveloped, and the extensive makeup work is fine but not enough to carry as much of this movie as the filmmakers seem to have expected it to. It’s clear they wanted this to be more than just another awful sports comedy, and while I appreciate the effort in spots, I don’t think it does enough to keep it from being another one for the pile, albeit a SLIGHTLY shinier addition to it.
Now this movie isn’t without merit, and there are some spots here and there where something with much more ambition could have really capitalized on the concept. Uncle Drew’s reason for joining this tournament is to show the youngsters how to respect the sport and play it correctly (a la the lesson Riley had to learn in that one episode of The Boondocks), but that gets dropped rather quickly in favor of a message about family; nor does anyone AT the tournament (which is a HUGE deal with a lot of celebrities and sports stars) bring up the fact that Uncle Drew and his team JUST SO HAPPENED to reappear after forty years of complete absence. Now that’s not to say that the family aspect of this movie doesn’t end up working well as Uncle Drew’s saccharin reconciliation with his old friends works better than you’d expect it to, but there still feels like an opportunity was missed to make this more about basketball through the eyes of two different generations. But hey, if they don’t want to go with the big ideas and want to make this a much more straightforward comedy, that’s fine too. While I didn’t enjoy most of the humor in here, there were some very bright spots; particularly with Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll as absurdly over the top villain archetypes which makes sense considering they’re the two most experienced comedians in the cast outside of Lil Rel Howery who sadly is rather constrained by the role he’s given. If nothing else, the filmmakers do a REALLY great job of shooting the basketball scenes which are really intense and fun to watch. Admittedly I don’t really know what to LOOK for when shooting a basketball scene so someone else can probably point out if there are obvious continuity issues or clearly illegal moves being used, but I think it’s well shot enough that most people won’t even notice if those issues ARE there; especially considering almost everyone on the court is a professional player which I’m sure made it easier to capture great moments and well executed plays.
Where things start to fall apart though is the script which is about as lazy as you’d EXPECT from a movie like this even though it’s clear this wanted to be more than just another typical broad comedy. The movie starts out with a rather tacked on documentary style scene where we learn the history of Uncle Drew who was for some reason calling himself Uncle when he was a young man (maybe it’s his first name like Uncle Ruckus?), but it doesn’t fit with what we see later as one of the first things we are told about him is that he disappeared forty years ago. How does our main character manage to find him then? He doesn’t! Uncle Drew is in no way “missing”; he’s in the exact same place he was back in the seventies! You’d think the documentary crew would have noticed him sitting courtside when they were collecting B-Roll footage for his documentary, but no! That’s just the first of many MANY examples of this movie being an unpolished mess and I can sit here and pick apart plot holes for days but that wouldn’t be a very good use of either of our time. The point is that things just HAPPEN in this movie with no real rhyme or reason which doesn’t allow for much growth between our characters or for this to really live up to the potential that you can clearly see in small isolated moments.
But you know what? I could have lived with that! I could have rolled with the contrivances and the ridiculous premise (apparently you can not only walk again but move like twenty year old if you just wear the right kind of shoes) because there is a sweetness to the overall movie that is infectious. What I can’t deal with though and what ultimately sinks this movie is when we have to get into the nitty gritty of who these characters are and why we should care about their struggles. In a movie like this, we’re supposed to be rooting for the main character no matter what their flaws may be; we want to see them grow and get better because the movie gives us a reason to care. To me that simply wasn’t the case here as Dax is one of the most obnoxiously bland punching bags I’ve seen in quite some time where his only characterization throughout is to be wrong about everything and to constantly take abuse. He’s a dreamer to be sure which is about half of what you need for a character like this, but at no point can you really root for him because his goals are so… well, bland. I don’t know what he plans to do the day after this tournament ends. Is he gonna use the money to set up a NEW team or is he just gonna blow it on a fancy house? Does he want to be an NBA or NCAA coach at some point? It’s not clear what he’s after which CAN work if the movie acknowledged it (Finn’s arc in the new Star Wars movies is about finding a place in the universe and what he is willing to fight for), but Dax is just not that interesting and the rest of the cast dunking on him constantly does little to endear him to us as the audience. It’s doubly bad because the rest of the cast are goofy archetypes of old people (which is its own can of worms that I’m sure some people will have very reasonable problems with), so if the one actual character whom these large personalities revolve around can’t carry his weight, it only calls into attention how one note the rest of the performances are. This is why Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll stand out so much. Whenever they are on screen, they command our attention and have very clear goals that they are conveying to the audience while also getting off some decent lines. I don’t think Lil Rel Howery is a bad actor, but he’s not given enough here to smooth out the rougher edges of the script of which there are WAY too many.
Like I said, the movie is… fine. I don’t have much antipathy towards it which is often the case with REALLY bad comedies, but I also don’t care to see this again and wouldn’t really recommend seeing it if you weren’t planning to already. It’s a fine distraction I guess and it’s nice to see SOME place where it tries just a little bit harder than you’d think it would, but that also means it’s that much more disappointing that it doesn’t capitalize on that potential. It’s worth checking out when it gets a home release, but ultimately it is pretty forgettable; even if they managed to convince Shaq to show his ass in it. Hey, not gonna judge here! I’m sure SOMEONE has been waiting twenty years to see that!