Uncle Drew is proof positive that a solid execution, deft handle on tone and a genuine emotional connection with characters can turn even the most cynical premise into (at least) a fun time at the movies.
Based on a series of Pepsi commercials in which NBA superstar Kyrie Irving plays a cranky old man who turns out to be a nimble, expert basketball player, Uncle Drew somehow transcends all of its prejudices to be a funny, affable, by-the-numbers but genuinely warmhearted sports underdog story that finds a way to take its silly gimmick—look at those old, frail men at the basketball court…oh wait, turns out it’s Shaq and Chris Webber!—and wrap it around a well-paced, inspirational narrative that earns almost every bit of its schmaltz.
Lil Rey Howery, breakout comic relief from Get Out, plays Dax, the high-strung coach of a street ball team getting ready for the prestigious Rucker Classic tournament. A lover of the game since his days growing up in an orphanage, he has given up on playing after his rival Mookie (Nick Kroll) blocked a winning shot. Does Dax’s character arc revolve around him coming to terms with his past failures, leading to some inspirational moments during the third act? Yes, the script sticks close to the Mighty Ducks template, but the characters and their bond keep our interest. After Mookie steals Dax’s star player, the desperate coach comes up with a plan to get back in the tournament: He recruits the reclusive ’60s streetball star Uncle Drew (Irving) and his team of senior goofballs for one last shot at the championship.
The second act borrows a bit from The Blues Brothers; replace “Getting the band back together” with “Getting the team back together,” as Dax and Uncle Drew snatch each player one by one. This section avoids dull, obligatorily episodic storytelling by giving distinct characteristics to each of the senior players and executing their stories with varying tones. The absurdist action-comedy route accompanies Preacher (Chris Webber)—who is, guess what, a preacher—as he tries to outrun his pissed-off wife (Lisa Leslie) who doesn’t want him to play anymore, leading to a balls-to-the-wall car chase sequence where the getaway driver is another kooky team member, the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller). On the other side of the tonal spectrum, we have Boots (Nate Robinson), a depressed old man who hasn’t spoken in years, but might come out of his shell with the promise of holding that ball once again. An old grudge between Drew and karate master Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal, conjuring up unwanted Shaq Fu flashbacks) also adds some dramatic pathos to the narrative. By the time the team’s reunited, it’s time for some exciting b-ball, which director Charles Stone III handles with an organic touch. None of the game sequences feel staged, though shots flow together seamlessly.
It’s not surprising to see these NBA stars show off their skills, but what is surprising is how adept they are at portraying old men. After a while, it becomes easy to forget the aging makeup and get lost in the chemistry between Howery and his team. Irving’s especially believable as Uncle Drew, having portrayed the character for the past seven years, but it’s one thing to credibly look like a 70-plus-year-old for 30 seconds of screen time, and another to turn him into a three-dimensional character, even if the script gives him one too many stock inspirational speeches. We already know that Howery has terrific comedy timing, but he also pulls off the straight man part with flying colors here.
Uncle Drew unfortunately drops the ball a bit (pun intended) when it comes to its antagonists, though one of its obvious selling points is Tiffany Haddish as Dax’s manipulative and opportunist ex-girlfriend. Haddish may have been cast before her rise to stardom, because it seems as if her small part’s expanded by sticking her in scenes in which she has no place, hindering the film’s otherwise effective pacing. Kroll, on the other hand, comes across as too cartoonish, which is a special achievement considering Uncle Drew’s plot. Still, this is one of those rare occasions in which a movie uses the dusty trope of turning a group of oddball misfits into a “family” and actually pulls it off in an emotionally satisfying way.
Director: Charles Stone III
Writer: Jay Longino
Starring: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rey Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll
Release Date: June 29, 2018