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There's a long history of professional athletes making the jump to the film world to capitalize on their personas. Michael Jordan's reputation as a champion made Space Jam a big film of the 1990s, while LeBron James played against type in 2015's Trainwreck to prove his comedy chops. Now it's Kyrie Irving's turn in Charles Stone III's Uncle Drew, and while the comedy elements of the film almost universally fall flat, the film does work as a love letter to the game and a showcase of some genuinely spectacular players.
Inspired by the Pepsi ads that made the titular character a household name, Uncle Drew crafts a narrative around the aging basketball guru and attempts (often successfully) to add dimensions to the corporate mascot. Focusing its story on a bumbling amateur basketball coach named Dax (Lil Rel Howery) who has lost everything, the film follows our hero as he sets out to assemble a team of players to win a basketball tournament and win $100,000. Beginning his recruitment with the mysterious Uncle Drew, the two then go on a recruitment trip and take down rival coach Mookie (Nick Kroll). This brings in a colorful cast of supporting characters, primarily comprised of basketball icons like Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Reggie Miller and Shaquille O'Neal.
When it tries to be funny, Uncle Drew's comedy tends to skew as broad as possible. In that regard, there are some fleeting moments of laughter to be found in its eccentric cast of characters, but a lot of the jokes ultimately fall flat. The problem is that the film mostly plays to the back of the room, using some of its best and most understated jokes during an ESPN 30 for 30 spoof that takes place in the movie's opening minutes. Once the A story actually kicks off, however, the film mostly plays to slapstick beats or double entendres (such as Drew's painfully unfunny utterance of "hold my nuts," the nuts being actual nuts) that just don't land. Everyone involved in the production (particularly the all-star players) looks like they are having a blast chewing the scenery, but there's a strong case to be made that Uncle Drew would have been better off sticking to the mockumentary format (a la Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) for its entire runtime.
On the other hand, despite the fact that Uncle Drew largely does not work as a straight-up comedy, it actually succeeds when it leans headfirst into its more dramatic elements and themes of aging, loss and friendship. Though the cast is primarily composed of professional athletes and icons from the world of sports, there are some surprisingly solid performances on display. Though I might be grading on a curve due to the fact that they're working outside of their comfort zones as public figures, Kyrie Irving and Shaquille O'Neal actually end up giving surprisingly compelling performances as Uncle Drew and Big Fella, respectively. There's a mysterious rift between them that weakens the collective unit of the team, and the film works best when it peels away the layers of that tension.
The same can also be said about Lil Rel Howrey's performance as Dax. The comedian and Get Out star offers up some solid sentiment as the coach of this team of misfits, and the script actually offers up a convincing rationale as to why he loves basketball and the people who play it so much. These moments are sometimes undercut by Uncle Drew's compulsion to aim for a joke instead of aiming for drama, and it sometimes leaves the sense that this movie would've been better with less emphasis placed on its cartoonish atmosphere.
Lastly, no discussion of a basketball movie could possibly feel complete without a review of the sport itself. Luckily, the basketball sequences clearly stand out as the best element of Uncle Drew's production. When actors aren't actually athletes, discerning viewers can often see how a filmmaker managed to edit around their lack of skill. In this case, however, combined decades of professional athletic experience clearly shine through. Even the older athletes who haven't played professionally in years (Lisa Leslie and Reggie Miller) show off some amazing moves and help establish Uncle Drew as a cut above the average basketball movie. In fact, the basketball sequences are so impressive that any basketball sequences designed to move the story forward (such as any involving Lil Rel Howrey or Nick Kroll) will likely leave you wanting the real deal to return.
Uncle Drew is a mixed bag of a movie from top to bottom. Much of the humor fails to land, but there's a lot of heart and some genuinely great basketball talent on display. It's a love letter to sports in a way that will almost certainly satisfy die-hard NBA fans, but it might not be the most accessible tale for a casual fan who does not have extensive, deep-cut knowledge of basketball history.