So, two major releases hit the theater this weekend and I was a little torn which one to review first. However, my mind was made up after I saw what was unexpectedly one of the most charming comedies of 2018 so far despite being a clear marketing tool with bland acting and a blah script. I am talking about “Uncle Drew”, a basketball themed film based on NBA star Kyrie Irving’s character of the same name featured in commercials for Pepsi Max. Filled with cameos and cliches, “Uncle Drew” is both ridiculous and amusing but which one truly defines the quality of this picture? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Uncle Drew”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Uncle Drew” stars Kyrie Irving as the titular character, a washed up former street ball great. After a young basketball fan named Dax (Lil Rey Howery) loses his players and his team, including superstar player Casper (Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic), to a childhood rival named Mookie (Nick Kroll) Dax must find a new team to help him compete in the 50th annual Rucker Classic, a street basketball tournament in Harlem. Having lost his team and his girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish) to Mookie, Dax happens upon an aged Uncle Drew and convinces him to play one more time for glory in the Rucker Classic. Drew has one condition, they use his old team. This sparks a road trip to recruit church minister Preacher (Chris Webber) whose wife Bettu Lou (Lisa Leslie) frowns upon the idea, legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller), the crippled Boots (Nate Robinson) and martial-arts master Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal) to play in the tournament for victory. As the story progresses the players and Dax must overcome the demons of their past and truly embrace their love of the game to defeat Mookie and his team.
Going into “Uncle Drew” I cannot lie I thought it would be a joke. I don’t mean a purposeful joke, I mean an absolute train wreck built to sell Pepsi and Nike and with no humor or substance at all. While I can’t say all of that was false, far from it, I have to admit that somehow, some way “Uncle Drew” proves to be an engaging and fun hour and a half that shocked me by bringing me in to the fun quite easily. This is probably due to the fact that writer Jay Longino and Director Charles Stone III who also directed the acceptable baseball comedy “Mr. 3000” knew what they were working with and tried just hard enough to make something that felt necessary but didn’t take itself too seriously. I think that was the biggest surprise for me with this film, that it didn’t feel like it should have never happened. “Uncle Drew” proves to be a fun time despite its cliches, bland script and simply okay performances by its non-actor cast members all of which I’ll touch on later. It’s funny, has heart in its admittedly bland story and had me laughing even at the dumbest and most simple of jokes because the execution was there.
Part of that execution is the cast members who actually do this for a living. Lil Rey Howery proves once again that he is criminally underrated as a star of modern comedy by taking the lead this time around to drive the story as Dax, a man in desperate need of a superpower team to win the Rucker Classic. Howery possesses great timing and can turn even the simplest phrase to work in his favor comedically and I have to say his not-even-close-to-subtle shout out to 2017’s “Get Out”, which he also stared in, gave me a great laugh. He’s not the only credible comedic talent here either. Nick Kroll serves as a delightfully over the top nemesis as Mookie, a fellow coach who humiliated Dax in their childhood. Kroll totally hams it up in his role, but it works. He makes us hate him and makes us want to see him fail as most overacted villains should. While his approach would be annoying in almost any other movie Kroll and Howery play up their characters’ relationship enough where Mookie’s ridiculous and competitive antics are seen as pretty out there even in-world. Because the characters are aware of the lunacy of Mookie we are as well and it helps us feel like we’re in the loop and not just onlookers expected to find something redeemable in this big baddy. Also of course I can’t move on without praising the always delightful Tiffany Haddish who is by far one of the best things to come out of this genre in a LONG time and proves it once again as Dax’s ex-girlfriend Jess. While she gets a lot less screen time than her costars, she steals nearly every scene she’s in as she is known to do, and I just love seeing her ham it up.
So backtracking a bit, yes “Uncle Drew” is predictable and cliché in many ways but even when you know what’s going to happen the story still manages to be engaging and thrilling in its own way. First off you can totally believe that the characters are truly invested in the pro-basketball message they are spreading throughout the movie. It’s not just something they are saying because the script told them to. Everyone on board seems to share the same sincere passion for the game and I will admit while I’m not a huge basketball fan myself (Go Celtic!) my dad is and watching this movie explore the passion fans of the sport has gave me some perspective. There’s still a huge fanbase for this sport and “Uncle Drew’s” core message is built to teach viewers, and the characters, that the love of the game is what it’s all about and it captures that sentiment to perfection. When the story finally finds its way to the final showdown with all the predictable dramatic layers you’d expect from literally any sports film it’s still enjoyable to see who wins and the basketball choreography is believable and fun. Hell, if I didn’t know any better I’d say they played a real game and just used that for the movie. Maybe they did, I don’t know but the fact that I even have to ask if it’s real is a good sign because the presentation of the game itself succeeds in capturing the nuances and joy of the game making for a harmlessly fun sports flick worth checking out if you’re a fan…and even if you’re not.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
As much as I actually enjoyed “Uncle Drew” as a comedy there are some very basic issues with the movie that are unforgivable in terms of overall quality. Starting with the acting, while the individuals who do this for a living are pretty on board not all of the basketball stars work as actors and the worst sinner is Kyrie Irving. Uncle Drew himself is a fun character, but Irving doesn’t really pull it off. He’s not unwatchable, but he’s not an actor and you can tell. He has a hard time selling the emotional depth of anything he has to say and even his repetition of the nickname “Young Blood” referencing Dax gets annoying VERY VERY QUICKLY. The rest of the cast of NBA and WNBA stars do alright with their roles, but again let’s face it they’re not real actors and it shows most of the time. Even Shaq who has the most experience of any of these players on the big screen couldn’t quite bring it to the next level. Now I give them credit, and I’ll do that a lot in this part of the review, they’re not phoning it in by any means and everyone does give it their best shot (no pun intended) to add something to their characters. They’re not the worst performances I’ve ever seen and aren’t even close to the worst of the year. At least they try and sincerely make an effort to add something to the story and for that I credit them, but bland acting is bland no matter how much I’d like to forgive them for entertaining me all the same.
Of course, it would have helped if they had a better script and screenplay. God, there are so many clichés in this movie I lost count. The script is as basic as basic can be and the screenplay contains the most by-the-books approach to a sports story you can come up with these days. I mean here it is: a coach leads a team of unique players and together they learn to overcome their faults to take on the big-bad former champions who just happen to have some personal connection to the coach complete with emotionally driven inspirational scene, internal conflicts that threaten their victory and even a practice game where their potential fails to shine through, all leading up to an epic showdown. I mean I just summed up the movie right there. “Uncle Drew” may do a fine job working with its clichés to create something that feels fresh and fun, but in the end it’s the same basic premise and story we’ve seen so many times on the big and small screen and it doesn’t even try to act original. I knew the whole story before I even went into the theater and while that didn’t end up spoiling the entertainment factor of the film it stills shows a lack of imagination all the same. “Uncle Drew” works off these clichés and makes them count but it seems the inspiration ended with the old man makeup because there’s no imagination on the page.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the fact that “Uncle Drew” does flaunt the product placement A LOT! Granted I was surprised that it wasn’t AS obvious as it could have been but it’s still there and it’s still very apparent. Pepsi of course gets prominent placement as the title sponsor of the Rucker Classic but honestly Nike actually gets more screen time than Pepsi funny enough. Spalding, Foot Locker, Enterprise and other sponsors all get prominent screen time as they feel shamelessly worked into the story, sometimes with obvious purpose and other times with almost no purpose at all, or are plastered on billboards at the game. I did expect that the product placement could reach “Transformers” level of ridiculous but in all honesty the final product feels constrained. Still, like many of the criticisms I have in this review, it’s something I can’t overlook even if I’d like to. Product placement is all too obvious in this movie and it does feel like a lot of things are thrown in our faces with the hopes that the viewing of the film will lead to consumerism. It’s not as obvious as it could have been, but it’s still pretty blatant and, at times, can take you out of the experience.
I’ve gotta say I didn’t expect this. I enjoyed “Uncle Drew”, even if only as a basic sports comedy that is satisfied with offering the minimum with decent payoff. The story is engaging enough, the sports action is fun, and the comedy is effective making for one of the most surprisingly delightful comedies of 2018 so far. However, it’s not a perfect film and simply settles for being as good as it needs to be to fill seats. The story is uninspired, and the script is even more bland. While the professional actors do a decent job the NBA and WNBA stars do simply okay at best and of course there’s product placement galore that, while toned down, still fails to mesh with the story. I’ve seen a few surprises over the years but “Uncle Drew” is probably the most shockingly pleasant good time I’ve had in the cinema so far in 2018. Is it a great film? No. Is it merely what it needs to be to serve its target audience? Absolutely. Does it add anything new to the genre? Not really. Is it a committed comedy that takes what it has and makes it work as best it can with fun characters and a load of great laughs that help it rise above its clichés even if only slightly? You bet. To summarize, “Uncle Drew” has absolutely no business being as fun as it is and if you go in with the right expectations, a sense of humor and an open mind you might be shocked to find yourself actually enjoying the experience in one way or another.