White Men Can’t Jump starts out fast and loose. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the movie dives into the motor-mouthed world of neighborhood pickup basketball with some of the same tossed-off showmanship that marked Shelton’s great minor-league-baseball comedy Bull Durham (1988) — perhaps the first sports movie ever made in which the characters talked as good a game as they played.

As White Men opens, we’re on the famously funky bohemian-sleaze strip along L.A.’s Venice Beach, where Sid Deane (Wesley Snipes), hoop hustler extraordinaire, is literally holding court. Sid isn’t very tall for a basketball player, yet that doesn’t matter much, since everything about him seems electrified: his spinning movements, his hot-wire stare, the mock-homeboy insults that leap out of his mouth as quickly as an auctioneer’s patter. Whether he’s going up for a slam dunk or heckling his rivals, he’s all speed and wizardry and aggressive, bullying flash. (A media-age spritzer, he’ll address a hapless white person as ”Brady Bunch.”) Snipes, it’s clear, is going to be a very big star. Fiercely magnetic, with the insinuating velvet sexiness of a matinee idol, he turns on the macho charm to play Sid the bad boy (much as he did to play the wild-eyed drug lord of New Jack City), but he also has an actor’s awareness. He cues us to see that Sid’s fast-break style is a carefully orchestrated stunt, a ritual way of psyching everyone out.

Sid’s latest victim, or so he thinks, is Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson), a lanky, badly dressed, rather mild-looking white guy — a real chump — who challenges Sid to toss free throws for cash. As it turns out, the chump is every bit the slick shooter Sid is. Harrelson has a lightweight presence, but he’s jovial and engaging; with his big jaw and goofy smile, he’s like an overgrown Muppet. Sid and Billy join forces, becoming partners in a hustling scam. Pretending not to know each other, they hang out at inner-city courts and put up hundreds of dollars to play rounds of two-on-two. The other players, who are all black, assume the white geek must have two left feet.

White Men features some amusingly daft racial banter. Sid and Billy razz each other about whether a white person can ”hear” Jimi Hendrix or whether black basketball players care more about looking good than winning. Yet it’s a funny thing about this movie: Sid and Billy don’t really develop as characters, and the dialogue is too glib and surfacy to have much satirical thrust. Despite the best efforts of Snipes and Harrelson (and both actors are charming), we never have the feeling these two are getting to know each other. Their sparring lacks the hostile, charged intimacy that Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte had in 48 HRS. Shelton would have done well to stage some more sports hustles. The basketball scenes are exciting, with lots of jazzy cutting and slow-mo; it’s a thrill to see the actors do their own behind-the-back passes. Yet these scenes aren’t staged with much concern for what’s happening dramatically on the court. Most of the time, we’re simply watching Sid and Billy dance around and sink their perfect shots.

Billy shares a cramped motel room with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), who spends all day long reading trend stories in magazines and cramming her head with scholastic trivia so that she can win big on Jeopardy! The movie turns into a genial, squabbling sitcom about a guy who can’t hold on to his money and the sharp-tongued pixie who keeps telling him to grow up.

In Bull Durham, Shelton got a lot of credit for creating a great female character. To me, though, there was something a little precious about Susan Sarandon’s absurdly literate baseball groupie. It was as if Shelton was celebrating the notion of a sassy, demanding woman and mocking it at the same time. In White Men, Rosie Perez’s Gloria starts out as a spunky hothouse flower, but by the end she seems a little too cute — and whiny — for comfort. Along with Sid’s wife (Tyra Ferrell), she’s presented as a new-style version of an old-style nag; both women are put in the unfortunate position of wanting their men to settle down and stop hustling. Shelton seems to forget it’s the very fact that these guys are hustlers that made us respond to them in the first place. The trouble with White Men Can’t Jump is that it comes on as a movie about smart-mouth basketball wizards and ends up pitting them against a couple of spoilsports.

White Men Can't Jump
  • Movie
  • 117 minutes