FILM REVIEW – UNCLE DREW. With Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller. Written by Jay Longino. Directed by Charles Stone III. Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language, and brief nudity. 103 mins.
Probably the most entertaining film ever based on a soft drink commercial, UNCLE DREW finds Boston Celtics’ superstar point guard Kyrie Irving reprising his role from a series of viral YouTube shorts promoting Pepsi Max. In these admittedly amusing spots, Irving plays the title character beneath a ton of “Coming to America” old man makeup, giving crowds of unsuspecting, trash-talking young whippersnappers a good what-for on the basketball court. The not inconsiderable pleasure of the Pepsi ads is in watching a doddering codger suddenly spring into action with the grace of a professional athlete. But is that enough to sustain a movie? Surprisingly, sort of.
Comedian Lil Rel Howery – the diminutive scene-stealer who managed to make us root for the TSA in last year’s “Get Out” – stars here as a bumbling, broke basketball coach who just lost his star player a few days before Harlem’s Rucker Park Streetball Tournament. Howery Is still haunted by a high school championship game in which his buzzer-beating shot was blocked by an obnoxious bully played by Nick Kroll, who has continued to torment him throughout adulthood as what girlfriend Tiffany Haddish calls, “The Ghost of White Boy Past.”
Out of options, Howery’s hapless coach enlists Irving’s barbershop legend Uncle Drew, who insists on reuniting his old Rucker team from half-a-century ago, all played by NBA icons underneath mountains of wrinkly latex. What follows is a road trip in Uncle Drew’s funkadelic orange van, blasting slow jams from the seventies while picking up Chris Webber’s born-again Preacher, the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller) and mute, wheelchair-bound dementia patient Boots (Nate Robinson.) The geriatric squad is rounded out by Shaquille O’Neal’s aptly-named Big Fella, who hasn’t spoken to Drew in decades and isn’t about to start again now. (This is far and away Shaq’s finest big screen performance. The not-talking part helps.)
Director Charles Stone III (who after “Drumline” and “Mr. 3000” is an old pro at underdog stories) grounds the silly shenanigans in a sweetness that can get a bit sticky sometimes. But he keeps the nonprofessional actors in the cast fully committed to their characters with far more consistency and credibility than you’re used to seeing when, say, an athlete hosts “Saturday Night Live.” Irving, in particular, brings a surprising gravity to Drew’s more dramatic moments, even if he does fall back on calling everybody “Youngblood” a few too many times.
“Uncle Drew” invests absolute sincerity in cornball old tropes like: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.” (My favorite exhortation to teamwork is: “Everybody knows Gladys Knight was nothing without The Pips.”) The guilelessness is almost touching, albeit slightly disingenuous considering the film is spun off from a corporate branding exercise and contains wall-to-wall product placement as far as the eye can see.
But of course what you came to watch is your favorite players clowning around on the court, and in that department “Uncle Drew” delivers. Stone and his one-named cinematographer Crash take advantage of the cast’s prowess in the paint, shooting Harlem Globetrotter-styled slapstick sequences in long, head-to-toe takes so we can fully appreciate their artistry. (There’s also a delightful dance number that goes on for what feels like ever because apparently everyone was having too much fun to stop.) Inside jokes abound involving Webber’s time-out miscount and Shaq’s free throw difficulties, and by the end even WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie gets her turn to play.
“Uncle Drew” will never be mistaken for a masterpiece but as far as branded content goes it’s sunny and good-natured enough to get by. And hey, at least it’s better than “Space Jam.”•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.