Playing a character invented several years ago for a series of soda ads, NBA star Kyrie Irving once again dons a gray wig and makeup to star as Uncle Drew, a legendary neighborhood athlete who vanished from the game decades ago instead of going pro. Helming this jump from web videos to the big screen, Charles Stone III delivers a light comedy that is understandably geared to hoops fanatics, calling in a team of other stars (ranging from the WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie to no-stranger-to-the-movies Shaquille O’Neal) to join Irving under the latex wrinkles. Moviegoers who don’t get a kick out of spotting athletes on the screen may be less than enthralled by the otherwise formulaic comeback flick, but sports-loving viewers will likely be more enthusiastic.
The tale’s protagonist is not old Drew but thirtysomething Dax, who gave up playing the game as a teen but still seeks minor glory as a coach. (Dax is played by Lil Rey Howery, a stand-up comic whose few minutes of screen time in Get Out yielded far more laughter than he gets here with Jay Longino’s pedestrian script.) Every year, Dax brings his neighborhood-league team to compete in Harlem’s long-running “Rucker Classic” tourney; every year, he loses to a team coached by the boor who once fouled him on the court, spoiling what should have been a triumphant moment. (As that coach, Mookie, Nick Kroll is in his douchey wheelhouse, smacking a wad of gum with his mouth open and taunting Dax at every opportunity.)
Mookie steals Dax’s star player Casper (Aaron Gordon, of the Orlando Magic), leaving him without a team to coach. With no hope of winning the tournament’s $100K prize, he’s also probably about to lose his Gucci-loving girlfriend Jess. (Tiffany Haddish earns her keep in the thin role.)
Consoling himself with a visit to the barbershop, Dax talks to a haircutter who used to watch Uncle Drew play. What you need, the oldster says, is to go meet Drew. (J.B. Smoove plays this bit part, again in old-man makeup. It’s always a pleasure to see Smoove pop up onscreen, but, with all the artificially aged actors here, you have to wonder if the filmmakers realize there are honest-to-god old black actors who might appreciate some work when a script calls for it.)
When it happens, that meeting is accidental, giving Drew a chance to wow Dax by sinking three-pointers over a cocky youth’s head. When Dax begs him to return to the game, Drew agrees on one condition: He’ll only play with teammates of his own choosing.
The script extends this “getting the crew back together” sequence for all it’s worth, as the two men go on a road trip in Drew’s shag-carpeted orange van and swap perspectives on music. (Dax, of course, thinks the sexy groove of The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” was invented by Biggie Smalls.)
In D.C., they find Preacher (Chris Webber) delivering a fiery sermon to his congregation; they watch Shaq’s “Big Fella” teaching children martial arts in another town. Reggie Miller is Lights, who is now legally blind and in an old folks’ home with nearly catatonic, wheelchair-bound Boots (Nate Robinson). Boots’ loving granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) decides to come along for the trip — ostensibly to watch out for Boots, but obviously because the script needs a redemptive love interest for Dax.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports film can write the rest of this picture, and Longino sees no need to reinvent the wheel, presumably accepting that the main reason we’re here is to see these creaking old dudes teach the young bloods a thing or two. The athletes, especially Irving, handle their off-the-court scenes better than one might expect — though it’s easy to be generous about a non-thesp’s acting when he’s under such cumbersome makeup. When the tournament begins, Stone plays things like a Harlem Globetrotters game, letting the unfortunate opposing teams be just good enough to show off the stars’ talents. (Robinson is especially fun to watch, making tricky shots while wearing a Frederick Douglass meets lightsocket wig that emphasizes how much shorter he is than everyone else.)
The pic’s main shortcoming is its impulse to keep coming back to Dax’s personal journey. When you have five once-great players getting a comeback none of them expected — and finally dealing with grudges they thought they’d take to their graves — don’t they deserve more of the film’s attention than the hustler who’s mostly in it for the money?
Production company: Temple Hill
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll, Aaron Gordon
Director: Charles Stone III
Screenwriter: Jay Longino
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey
Executive producers: Louis Arbetter, Aziel Rivers, Marc Gilbar
Director of photography: Crash
Production designer: Douglas J. Meerdink
Costume designer: Johnetta Boone
Editors: Jeff Freeman, Sean Valla
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Casting director: Victoria Thomas
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes