Uncle Drew. A feature length, wide-release Hollywood film based off of those Pepsi commercials I don’t remember. On paper, it sounds like a corporate scheme. Let’s round up a couple basketball stars, some hot-right-now comedians, and throw them into a sports movie template with enough empty space in the set dressing for product placement.
It could have been a cynical business move. Surprisingly, though, Uncle Drew shows more integrity than that. There isn’t a blinding amount of corporate sponsorship on display. There are some Pepsi and Gatorade logos, and Aleve is both name-checked and on prominent display in the film’s climactic location. Still, it is no more of a commercial than any other studio picture.
While not a brand deal film, it still does follow a basic plot trajectory. Coach of a local New York basketball team, Dax (Lil Rel Howery) is a man who has been abandoned all his live. Lucky for him, he’s in a good place. Beautiful girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish). Star player (Aaron Gordon). He’s ready to get back at the rival that crushed his basketball dream years ago, the slimy Mookie Bass (Nick Kroll), in the upcoming Rucker Classic tournament.
Then everything goes south. Dax runs out of money attempting to bribe his players into staying on the team. Mookie headhunts the entire team, including the star. His girlfriend, clearly only with Dax with the promise of getting some of the $100,000 Rucker Classic winnings, leaves him. Mookie steps in there, as well.
Dax is abandoned again. Until he sees a friendly pickup game turn into a schooling session from an unlikely source: a famous basketball player in old age makeup. The elderly gentleman, Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving), teaches the players some lessons about how the game is meant to be played.
Drew is on a mission to teach the “lost youngbloods” about what it means to play a seamless game of basketball. Dax comes in to offer him that opportunity. To play on the big stage again, in the Rucker. Drew agrees on one condition: his team, his roster.
Enter a lengthy third act roadtrip in which more basketball stars in old age makeup (Chris Webber, Lisa Leslie, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal) are picked up. All of this leading up to the foregone conclusion climax: the final game between Dax and his rival.
Ultimately, it’s a lot of hub-bub for little payoff. The film focuses less on depicting the drama of basketball and more on depicting the squabbles between grumpy old men. Namely, there is between two characters an unspoken tension over past events. It is a thread that continues on as if the resolution will be immensely cathartic, but it is really written into the script so that characters can shut down the team’s chemistry at convenient moments.
What good that comes out of this attention to the characters comes in the forms of Reggie Miller and Nate Robinson, who make surprisingly endearing old men. Otherwise, the acting that comes from this NBA group is nothing more than gruff vocal affectations.
Of course, one cannot scrutinize the acting here too much. Howery, Kroll, and Haddish do enough to balance the less-adequate performances we see from the non-actors.
No, the problem isn’t with the acting. It isn’t with the corporate beginnings of this premise. It is with the way the plot drags on, using tepid running gags as its anchors. Old people smell bad. They have to pee often. And they don’t have an appreciation for the music of the youngbloods.
It’s all rather bland. The one humorous thing that comes from this line of thinking is Howery’s exasperated responses to how increasingly ill-equipped for basketball Uncle Drew’s team appears to be.
Uncle Drew has a moment or two. A chuckle here and there. But ultimately it is boilerplate plotting, derivative comedy, and airless depictions of basketball. It isn’t enough to hang a feature on. Kind of makes sense, when the idea is lifted from 30-second ad spots.
Uncle Drew: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)