White Men Can’t Jump Throws Up a Brick

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White Men Can’t Jump Throws Up a Brick

One of the easiest ways to defang White Men Can’t Jump, aside from hiring a director that can’t film basketball, is to replace the searing racial and economic tension of the early ‘90s with Kenya Barris’ exhausting (and exhausted) race-relations punchlines. The Black-ish sitcom mogul and his frequent collaborator Doug Hall wrote the White Men Can’t Jump remake, which is an even bigger disservice to its source material than Barris’ Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner riff You People or director Calmatic’s House Party remake. The confused comedy waddles onto the court as confidently as a kid in an oversized hand-me-down jersey. But why would this derivative filmmaking aspire to anything else? It’s all just set dressing for Jack Harlow’s brick of a big-screen debut.

Harlow plays hippy-dippy pill-popper Jeremy, an ex-Gonzaga star with two busted ACLs, who runs into pissed-off pick-up player Kamal (Sinqua Walls), a former high school stud who got busted for busting up a heckler. Both broke, they start up a friendship and enter a basketball tournament to get a life-changing amount of cash. No longer about two hustlers caught up in a cycle of insatiable ego and scraping-by capitalism, 2023’s White Men Can’t Jump is about two barely-sketched ex-ballers trying to reclaim their glorious youth. The unflattering but understandable thematic throughline is trying to live up to your past—something that haunts White Men Can’t Jump’s title more than its characters.

But even if the script had any substance, or if the filmmaking could competently show something as essential as a basketball going from hand to hoop, or if Harlow could act, White Men Can’t Jump would always be picking at the irritating jock itch of its racial politics. 

Casting a rapper as the white man who allegedly can’t jump (a suggestion rebuffed as “dated” by said white rapper) requires nuance, and a performer keen to laugh at himself. Woody Harrelson’s embarrassingly corny hayseed might’ve been a stereotype, but with that confrontational stereotype came both self-effacing truth (Harrelson often looks like an uncle who dressed himself at a garage sale, and one ready to throw racist barbs when his temper flares) and the opportunity for subversion. It helps that Wesley Snipes’ put-together family man was roasting him at every turn.

Moving the spotlight from farm boy to culture vulture begs for a more complicated take on racism that sets its sights on modern topics: White liberal denialism and appropriation. But, like other Barris material, it seems intent on using its gentle ribbing to appease rather than interrogate. Jeremy is constantly positive and overly familiar, his racism always harmless and backed up with affirming punchlines. When Jeremy says an opponent looks like Malcolm X, the camera swings around and—sure enough—there are those browline glasses on a guy who was definitely at the audition for One Night in Miami. When Jeremy brings a bottle of Hennessy to a Black child’s birthday party, Kamal’s dad (Lance Reddick) warmly asks for a nip. Harlow’s vocabulary and cadence are painted over by these gags—it’s much easier to dismiss and laugh off his faux pas than to question his entire persona.

The original’s boldness and energy—with real hurt and real yearning for camaraderie playing between two men who share a passion—has been papered over by public relations. Because this is a Harlow vehicle, Kamal exists only as a foil. Walls is reduced to a mannequin, with no retorts to Jeremy’s nonsense other than the occasional deadpan “don’t do that again, bro.” Whenever Jeremy says something about skin color, about bodies, about well-spokenness, Kamal is there to sigh and, eventually, smile. This silly, well-meaning white boy.

Actually, it would be better if Kamal was just there for that purpose. But it’s worse. Kamal’s single trait, his violent streak, is the set-up for the story so that the enlightened white Jeremy’s soothing meditation and breathing exercises can eventually calm the angry Black man. Jeremy solves all of Kamal’s problems, and Kamal does the only thing he’s able to do as a Black man without a character: Validate a white man.

And that’s not even mentioning the protagonists’ partners, Imani (Teyana Taylor) and Tatiana (Laura Harrier). The women barely have two dimensions to rub together, and the talented performers use them to constantly cut their charisma-free counterparts down to size. Walls’ performance is empty, but so is his role. Harlow’s is a familiar vacuum. He’s too self-conscious, like an SNL guest star trying his damnedest to read the cue cards in a cool way. Sometimes his face is completely stationary. Other times, it sneers and mugs so much it’s like he forgot that the camera was rolling and he needs to make up for lost time. His character’s addiction to painkillers is so underdone as to be insulting, and Harlow becomes even more one-note when acting fucked-up. Thankfully, he seems capable at basketball—at least, going by the cinematic confetti that Calmatic provides.

White Men Can’t Jump provides all the flash you’d expect from a music video director, with tracking shots and drone coverage taking precedence over julienned conversations and basketball footage. Calmatic’s camera is always descending from some random height, floating down on a crane or hovering down on a drone, to show a scene immediately identifiable as such. Every new setting has clearly been set, every talk between friends as static as an audition. Calmatic has an eye for colors—filling his final tournament with eye-popping oranges, greens, yellows, baby blues and pinks—but no sense of narrative. You know the characters aren’t developing, but the games they play are equally inscrutable. You never know the score, the mindsets of its players, or if any of the points matter. The story’s final victory is so poorly framed, it feels like you’re stumbling in with a hot dog right after a kid won college tuition by hitting a half-court shot.

Calmatic has such a hard time getting the movie from point A to point B (and shooting the central sport in an exciting or logical way) that his constant retreat to montages—say, a group of ballet students practicing in a blanketing orange light—is a clear reach for a security blanket. The other technique of compensation in his arsenal is filling dead air with bad movies’ favorite storytelling substitute: Literalized needledrops. If you don’t like the “Just the Two of Us” or “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” montages, you only have to wait five minutes until another one (in the latter’s case, “Santeria”) plugs up the film’s prevalent empty space.

While the two NBA Jam NPCs masquerading as leads run through endless exposition or empty filler lines like “Wow, lot to unpack there,” we have plenty of time to analyze what’s in front of us. We have the space to mull over the tame, terrible trash talk. We’re given the chance to wonder about the location of immediately dropped plot threads, like Jeremy being introduced as a wannabe influencer. We wonder about the off-screen death of Kamal’s dad being used as tonally absurd inspiration. We wonder why Barris and Hall felt it necessary for a Black character to affectionately, climactically call Jeremy the N-word. We wonder what, if anything, this awful movie has to offer aside from smashing together two notable names. White Men Can’t Jump is barely a remake, it’s just brand synergy.

Director: Calmatic
Writer: Kenya Barris, Doug Hall
Starring: Jack Harlow, Sinqua Walls, Teyana Taylor, Laura Harrier, Vince Staples, Myles Bullock, Lance Reddick
Release Date: May 19, 2023 (Hulu)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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