Back in the ’90s, former NBA star Larry Johnson transformed himself into an elderly, muumuu-wearing, slam-dunking alter ego named “Grandmama” on behalf of Converse. Johnson’s commercials were quite popular, and the 6-foot-7-inch All-Star even made a guest appearance on Family Matters. But although Johnson’s character was popular, it never reached the status of Kyrie Irving’s “Uncle Drew” character developed by Pepsi.
The “Uncle Drew” Pepsi web series introduced the world to yet another elderly alter ego who was once a basketball great. But even though he’s a card-carrying member of the AARP, Drew’s love of the game never ceased. The shorts were funny and simple and good enough for television. But what should have stayed on the small screen is now a full-featured movie.
[Full disclosure: The Root was part of a press junket in Los Angeles for Uncle Drew, in which the hotel was paid for by Lionsgate.]
Uncle Drew, directed by Charles Stone III and written by Jay Longino, stars Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), Nick Kroll (The League), Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse) and Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip).
The premise of the movie is quite simple: Dax (Lil Rel Howery) is a Foot Locker salesperson who coaches a basketball team that is prepping for the famous street-ball tournament at Rucker Park in Harlem. But Dax’s team is wooed away from him by his old high school rival, Mookie (Kroll), a gum-chewing “White Chocolate” type of dude.
With no team to coach, Dax comes across Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) showing the youngsters how it’s done on the basketball court, and manages to talk the elderly player into stepping back onto the court and playing at the Rucker, but only if he recruits his old-school teammates to join in.
And that’s where the fun of the main character begins and, unfortunately, ends. Surrounded by NBA greats like Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson and WNBA star Lisa Leslie, Kyrie’s Uncle Drew and even the actors known for their comedic timing fail to hold up to the antics of the former players.
Miller, who’s known for his on- and off-court trash-talking, plays a legally blind basketball player who still has game. Webber’s character, now a preacher who specializes in outlandish baptisms, is married to Betty Lou (Leslie), who doesn’t want to hear anything about him returning to basketball. She gives chase after he escapes the church, but actually ends up joining the team, too.
Then there’s Big Fella (O’Neal), who’s now an abominable kung-fu master who’s holding a grudge against Uncle Drew (think Eskimo Brothers—that’s a reference to Kroll’s former series The League, which I loved). And lastly, there’s Boots (Robinson), looking like a cross between Reggie Watts and Frederick Douglass and who also happens to be in a wheelchair.
The funniest parts of the movie all have to do with the other elderly players, minus Irving.
Hilarious are the basketball jokes about everything from Webber’s infamous foul miscount to Miller’s being heckled from the sidelines the same way Spike Lee used to do him, to Shaq’s still not being able to manage free throws.
Anyone into ’90s basketball and the drama and occasional comedy behind it will find the jokes hilarious, but if you’re not a basketball fan, you may be a little lost in the sauce—like some of the other actors in the movie.
Haddish, Howery and Kroll are some of the funniest actors out there, but they just don’t cut it in this movie. Maybe the material is to blame? From the constant and lame jokes about Howery’s height to Haddish, once again, being the loud and obnoxious black chick, and Kroll’s hip-hop white-boy antics, these seasoned actors got a run for their money from some rickety-kneed former NBA players.
The plot, which was quite predictable, was only held together by Miller, O’Neal, Webber, Robinson and Leslie. Many people will probably head to Uncle Drew for Kyrie Irving and the popularity of the web series, but the older aforementioned former players will be the ones who keep your attention.
Uncle Drew opens in theaters this Friday, June 29.