2018, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Charles Stone III. Starring Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Chris Webber, Erica Ash, Lisa Leslie, Nick Kroll, Tiffany Haddish.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., July 6, 2018
The 1990s were a banner decade for professional basketball players looking to establish themselves as actors. From Shaquille O’Neal (Kazaam) to Michael Jordan (Space Jam) to Ray Allen (He Got Game), NBA stars could be found in blockbusters and prestige pictures alike, often accompanied by marketing campaigns that leaned heavily on their celebrity to promote the film. With that in mind, the biggest surprise about Uncle Drew isn’t that Lionsgate has funded a feature-length adaptation of a popular Pepsi commercial, but that it’s taken someone this long to recycle that idea. Believe it or not, it still kinda works.
Ever since he cost his team the championship game in middle school, Dax (Howery) has been willing to leverage everything to become the coach of a successful outdoor basketball team. When his old rival (Kroll) steals his best players out from under him, Dax goes in search of the streetball legend Uncle Drew (Irving), a former phenom who has spent decades out of the spotlight. To Dax’s delight, Drew agrees to help him win this year’s streetball championship, but there’s a catch: Dax must help Drew track down each of his teammates from the Sixties so they can win (or lose) together one last time.
The big draw of Uncle Drew, of course, is watching professional athletes try their hand at physical comedy under layers of silicon. Surprisingly, these performances are often the best part of the movie. O’Neal is old hat at this type of movie, but it’s relative newcomers like Chris Webber and Reggie Miller that steal the show. Howery also holds his own as a comedy leading man, showing that his breakout role as conspiracy theorist TSA agent Rod in Jordan Peele’s Get Out was no fluke. Together, Howery and his cadre of newly minted actors wring a surprising amount of humor – and even a few heartfelt moments – out of the movie’s slight premise.
Since Uncle Drew is an unapologetic throwback to Nineties comedy, you can also expect a steady barrage of self-referential humor. In one memorable scene, Preacher (Webber) is gently chided about the number of time-outs in the game, a callback to Webber’s disastrous mental lapse during the 1993 NCAA championship game. Even Howery’s character gets into the action, quipping that he’s afraid to get in a car with white strangers ever since he saw Get Out.
Of course, Nineties nostalgia cuts both ways, and the story elements that make this all so pleasantly familiar also limit its creativity. If the humor seems modeled after Nineties blockbusters like Last Action Hero and Space Jam, the storyline bears more in common with children’s sports movies. Uncle Drew also commits the major sin of relegating Tiffany Haddish to the role of shrewish ex-girlfriend. For better and worse, Uncle Drew feels like the kind of movie that would’ve cleaned up in the summer of 1998. We’ll see how well its game holds up 20 years later.