This August will mark 12 years that I’ve been reviewing movies for the Mountain Xpress. And while I can’t remember everything I’ve written in these pages, I’m pretty sure I’ve never admitted that I’m a huge fan of professional basketball. In this sense, I’m somewhere within the boundaries of the target audience for Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew. With this in mind, I can also admit that the movie is mostly pretty hokey, while also, somehow, being better than it has any right to be.
The concept is flimsy, based on a few-year-old Pepsi ad campaign where they dolled up NBA player Kyrie Irving in old-man makeup and threw him into playground basketball courts against supposedly clueless opponents. For a 30-second commercial to be strung out over a feature length, Uncle Drew is surprisingly cohesive and even occasionally amusing, despite a whole lot of filler and some cloying attempts at heavier emotions. When you take into account the fact that the movie’s basically peopled by a bunch of ex-NBA players in heavy, unconvincing makeup, it’s a small miracle that Uncle Drew is as watchable as it is.
The film is a wholly predictable little affair, centered on Dax (Lil Rey Howery, Get Out), who gets his star street ball team stolen from him by his archrival (Nick Kroll) and kicked out by his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Night). With nowhere else to turn, he discovers an elderly basketball legend named Uncle Drew (Irving), a sort of Zen master of the art of basketball who can still play.
Most of the film is a sort of road trip picture, where Drew and Dax set out in Drew’s shag-carpeted conversion van to recruit the rest of Drew’s fellow octogenarian teammates. The comedy’s generally pretty broad and occasionally one-note, mostly revolving around the fact that all the characters are elderly, or a bunch of inside jokes that only someone who’s got a familiarity with basketball will get. On top of this, the plot is incredibly predictable, with Dax’s whole subplot of no longer playing basketball because of a childhood failure resolving itself in the most obvious way possible.
Somehow, though, the film manages to be surprisingly sweet-natured. Yes, the more dramatic parts of the film, like Drew and Big Fella’s (Shaquille O’Neal) maudlin subplot, feel tedious and superunconvincing. But there’s a wholesomeness to the film’s overall message of forgiveness and following dreams. None of it’s groundbreaking, especially from a sports flick, but it’s handled with enough maturity that it works. Helping things is the surprising fact that the cast isn’t all that bad. Irving, while a bit one-note, has some charisma, while Chris Webber, as Preacher has an amount of comedic timing that’s impressive. None of it’s enough to raise the film above the level of shoddy, middling comedy, but there is the constant sense that things could be a lot worse. Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language and brief nudity. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.