As a Boston Celtics fan, it pains me to see our star player, Kyrie Irving, somehow finding the time to moonlight as a Hollywood movie star when his knee wouldn’t even allow him to finish out the season. What kind of priorities are those? Still, if he was hell-bent on launching a second career as an actor, he could have done a lot worse than choosing the Grumpy Old Street-ballers comedy Uncle Drew. It’s one of those lightweight summer diversions that’s a hundred times funnier than you expect. Which isn’t to say it’s great — just not as disposable as it could have been.
If you’ve seen the trailer, then you already know the movie’s main gag — a team of crotchety and deceptively agile senior-citizen basketball players come out of retirement to reclaim their past glories and teach the young whippersnappers some life lessons on the court. What makes the film work, though, is that it doesn’t aim too high. It’s like a slam dunk on an 8-foot rim. Plus, if you’ve always wanted to see Shaquille O’Neal in gray muttonchop sideburns breakdancing and showing off his bare ass in a hospital gown, then this will be your Citizen Kane.
Directed by Drumline’s Charles Stone III, the film stars Get Out comic relief Lil Rel Howery as Dax, a hard-luck Foot Locker employee who once harbored NBA hoop dreams before getting shot-blocked by reality. Now he wants to coach a streetball team to take the $100,000 grand prize at Harlem’s annual Rucker Tournament, not only because he’s deep in debt to his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, good without quite being Girls Trip-good), but also so he can get revenge on his longtime nemesis, Mookie (Nick Kroll, funny, but a little of his inner-city white-boy shtick goes a long way). After Dax’s star player defects to Mookie’s team, Dax needs a new squad fast. What he gets instead is an old one.
Enter Uncle Drew (Irving), a local legend who, back in the late ’60s, was the most talented player to ever step on the Rucker court. And then he just seemed to vanish — one of basketball’s great what-if tales. That is, until Dax sees him in baggy sweats and a cotton-ball beard schooling a cocky young player one day and gets the idea to make him the arthritic anchor of his new team — the straw that stirs the prune juice cocktail. And why not? Uncle Drew may look like Ozzie Davis, but he plays like Anthony Davis. The two hop into Drew’s van, crank up the 8-track, and hit the road to reunite his old trash-talking geezer teammates. As Drew, Irving isn’t much of an actor, despite playing the character previously in a string of Pepsi commercials. But with a premise this broad, quite frankly he doesn’t really have to be.
His Bengay teammates are all NBA stars of varying degrees of wattage under comically unconvincing old-age wigs and shar-pei latex wrinkles. There’s Chris Webber as Preacher, a bible thumper straight out of Coming to America (his wife, who’s also got game, is played by WNBA legend Lisa Leslie); Reggie Miller as Lights, a legally blind sharpshooter from the perimeter; Nate Robinson as a wheelchair-bound point guard named Boots; and Shaq as a hulking karate instructor who has some unfinished business in and out of the dojo with Drew. None of these gentle giants can “act” in the traditional sense — or even the non-traditional sense. But they do convey heart, which is this particular comedy’s stealth weapon. Plus, Howery has more than enough yappy, motormouth presence to hold the amateur theatrics together long enough to get to the big game against Mookie’s squad.
I honestly wish Uncle Drew didn’t wind up citing the same metaphorical Hallmark-card quote that the recent comedy Tag just did (“You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing”). But Stone’s film was never going to be a movie that people walked out of praising it for originality. You more or less know what this soft-drink-sponsored movie is going to be as soon as the lights start to dim. What makes it worth recommending is that it ends up being just slightly more than that by the time the lights come back on. B-