Scalding Hot Takes: Uncle Drew
Welcome to the latest entry in Scalding Hot Takes. It’s the column that has brought me kicking and screaming back into the general neighborhood of my old profession of film criticism by documenting important new releases while they’re still in theaters as opposed to when they’ve been either forgotten or angrily shunned by society, which is when I usually write about them.
At least that’s the idea. This column, and the podcast it is inextricably tied to, Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast, has forced me to see some of the biggest, best and most culturally significant films of the past eight months, movies like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, The Last Jedi and, Christ, how sad is it that I am scrambling to find a biggie that’s not either Marvel or Star Wars?
I cover these films the way I used to back in my earliest days as a film critic for The A.V Club back in Madison, where there was no real screening room and the site had not yet begun its rocket ride to power and popularity and consequently no one gave a fuck about us, so I’d see the new movies on Friday at the earliest showing, just like everyone else.
Scalding Hot Takes was designed to force me to watch new, culturally relevant movies I might otherwise stubbornly avoid. But it’s also given me an excuse to watch and write about movies I find appealing precisely because, in every conceivable way, they do not matter. They don’t win awards. They do not shatter box office records or push the art of film forward. There is no cultural conversation about their message, value or meaning, beyond a half-bored, “Could it possibly be as bad as it looks?”
I’m talking about movies like Uncle Drew, the feature film adaptation of a series of popular Pepsi Max commercials rooted in a sort of old folks minstrelsy that finds a murderer’s row of basketball superstars like Kyrie Irving, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal and Nate Robinson buried under layer upon layer of latex and old-men make-up, playing septuagenarians who may look like arthritic old men but are actually world-class athletes when the film calls for them to be, and barely mobile old men the rest of the time.
Uncle Drew is a Pepsi Productions so I was of course curious to see how their film and soda-pop manufacturing divisions stack up. Every element of the film seems designed to lower expectations to the point where the film merely being in focus will represent a triumph, except for one.
This Pepsi produced motion picture rooted in unconvincing old man make-up, excessive sentimentality and the cheap but effective gimmick of elderly b-ballers hooping like men a third their age due to the magic of make up and latex was directed by Charles Stone III.
Stone III cut his teeth directing music videos for artists like The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep before breaking into film in a big way with the 2002 one-two punch of the critically acclaimed sleeper hit Drumline and the the minor 2002 crime cult classic Paid in Full, starring a pre-The Wire Wood Harris. Stone III followed those sleepers up with the solid Bernie Mac vehicle Mr. 3000. Things get a whole lot iffier after that, with a TV movie about TLC and a couple of films I’ve never heard of: the 2015 Jennifer Lopez/Viola Davis vehicle Lila & Eve and 2018’s promising-seeming Step Sisters, which looks like a companion piece to Drumline.
Stone III has proven himself to be a solid commercial director with a nice feel for the camaraderie, spectacle and emotion of sports. Thanks largely to his mildly over-achieving efforts, I am pleased to report that I can confidently answer the question of whether or not this could possibly be as bad and it looks and sound with “Not at all.”
That’s only partially because the expectations set by a Pepsi-produced adaptation of popular soda pop adverts sets the bar so impossibly low. This is actually the second commercial-based movie or television shows Nick Kroll has lent his talents to, after his early gig as one of the Geico cavemen in the sitcom of the same name.
Kroll is really establishing himself as the go-to guy for movies based on advertisements for consumer goods and services. So don’t be surprised if you see him in upcoming films like Sonic Guys in the Car: The Movie, The Whassup? Chronicles (which Stone III will presumably be adapting from the commercials he created) and The Budweiser Frogs in The Psychedelic Rainforest of Doom.
Comedian Lil Rey Howery, fresh off his star-making turn as the comic relief best friend in Get Out, stars as Dax, an orphan who whiled away the lonely hours of his Dickensian childhood watching actor and minor league baseball player Michael Jordan play basketball and dreaming of a day when he’d be the one hooping it up.
That all came to a crashing, traumatic end one day when he has a key shot blocked by Mookie, an obnoxious little white boy who will grow up to be an unusually annoying Nick Kroll. Mookie decides to ramp up the rivalry in adulthood by maliciously taking glee in stealing away everything his pint-sized, bespectacled nemesis holds dear, from Casper (Aaron Gordon), the star basketball player Dax is convinced will be his key to victory in the legendary Ruckers Streetball tournament, to Jess, Dax’s money and status obsessed girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, who appears to be starring in all of the movies going forward).
Dax loses his team and later his partner to his wealthier arch-nemesis but whenever God closes a door he opens a window to a room showing an old Pepsi Max commercial on a beat-up old television, so professional and personal redemption soon appears in the unlikely form of Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving).
Uncle Drew was once the king of street ball before he slept with a teammate’s girlfriend, a betrayal that broke up the team, broke up the friendship and relegated Drew to a life in the shadows rather than in the spotlight.
Deep into his seventies, Uncle Drew can out-ball cocky young men in their twenties, and while he is a one-man basketball army he is only one man, and a comically old one at that, so a desperate Dax and a nostalgic Uncle Drew take off in a van the color of a 1973 sunset and set out to reunite the team in time to compete in an upcoming Ruckers tournament that Mookie’s purloined squad of mercenary b-ballers are expected to dominate.
There’s are echoes of The Blues Brothers in this basketball-loving, redemption-hungry odd couple’s road trip to put the band back together, metaphorically speaking, for the purpose of one last hurrah. These ancient old men sure don’t look like world-class athletes from the outside, just as Jake and Elwood Blues didn’t appear to be ace blues musicians. But just as these ancient titans of the hardwood shock onlookers and doubters with their incredible, unbelievable, seemingly impossible prowess, Jake and Elwood shocked everyone by adequately performing passable versions of rudimentary blues songs when backed by some of the greatest musicians in the world, like the recently deceased Matt “Guitar” Murphy.
Uncle Drew is at its best when it's taking its sweet time and simply soaking up the atmosphere in largely black spaces like the Church (where a preacher played by Chris Webber toils before he’s lured back into his old life), the barbershop and the world of street ball, where the rules are different, as are the legends.
Uncle Drew, alas, is in much too much of a hurry to put the team together and work its way through a series of contrived dramatic moments and conflicts that detract from the movie’s breezy, goofball charm and ingratiating lightness.
A movie based on a series of soda pop commercials starring NBA legends in old man make-up doesn’t really need big emotional stakes. It doesn’t need to make its protagonist a tragic orphan whose religion and family are both basketball in order in order to get us to feel sympathy for him. We most assuredly do not need to spend so much time exploring Uncle Drew’s regrets and demons.
Uncle Drew is being sold as a loose, ramshackle sports comedy but it’s ultimately every bit as much a fantasy as Like Mike, Slam Dunk Ernest and other, lesser, magical basketball-shoes-based kiddie entertainment. The median age of Dax’s team seems to lurk somewhere in the mid-70s. I don’t want to be ageist but through history, athletes in their twenties and thirties have generally triumphed over septuagenarians. As if that weren’t enough, Dax’s team includes both a blind man and a man in a wheelchair.
Thankfully Uncle Drew is unexpectedly a Magical Negro, albeit one who helps other similarly Magical Negros, by climactically giving his blind teammate goggles that let him see and his wheelchair-dwelling colleague a pair of sneakers so “dope” that they allow him to strut out of his wheelchair and start playing like he’s in an NBA All-Star game.
Despite its mercenary origins, cornball central gimmick and persistent, pervasive sappiness, Uncle Drew is for the most part an agreeable enough time waster, an exceedingly affable comedy that genuinely likes its characters and the simultaneously gritty and glamorous world they inhabit.
Grooving effortlessly to a 70s soul groove and full of hot b-ball action, Uncle Drew burdens Shaquille O’Neal with some of its heavy-handed drama but also gives him a fun role as a Martial Arts dude whose profession and passion lovingly reference the rapper and actor’s early fame as the face, name and foremost practitioner of the video game, martial art, spiritual discipline and sturdy pop culture reference of Shaq Fu.
Uncle Drew is full of crowd-pleasing moments, like a dance-off where the geriatric gang of unlikely b-ball monsters shock a crowd full of youngsters by busting out the moves of men decades younger. I am a sucker for dance-offs. I fucking love them regardless of context. It actually takes some effort to create a dance-off sequence I do not thoroughly enjoy, and Uncle Drew’s dance battle is a real charmer, as is the film as a whole.
At the end of the movie, the audience broke into applause. That’s partially a testament to how hard the movie panders to its target demographic of easily entertained children, nostalgic basketball fans and stoners. But the crowd’s enthusiastic, sincere reaction also speaks to the movie’s effectiveness as a crowd-pleaser.
In sharp contrast to pretty much every athlete in the history of the world, Uncle Drew would actually benefit from much less heart. It’s got way too much heart. Sappy, sappy, saccharine heart. What it could use is more guts.
Uncle Drew not a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but it is a nice movie, and a fun movie, and for me at least, that was enough.
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