Uncle Drew (2018) Review
A FUN “PAINT-BY-NUMBERS”
Sports movies are a “dime a dozen”, usually presenting a sort of “underdog” tale of overcoming the odds and adversity in order to project type of inspirational feeling and/ or a “glimpse” into the sometimes-hidden world of that particular sport (i.e. beyond what commonly known). While there has been a variety of sports depicted in feature films, including football, soccer, rugby, baseball, tales that revolve around the sport of basketball have been around for quite some time, spinning narratives that are both familiar of a player / team coming together to beat the odds or to triumph on their own personal merits from both on and off the court. This includes films like 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump, 1996’s Space Jam, 1998’s He Got Game, 2005’s Coach Carter, and 2006’s Glory Road just to name a few that have presented a cinematic tale to the sport of basketball. Now, Summit Entertainment (A Lionsgate company) and director Charles Stone III present the latest basketball themed movie with the film Uncle Drew. Does this latest sport-themed endeavor make the winning shot or does it completely miss its mark?
Growing up with a love all things basketball, Dax Winslow (Lil Rey Howery) is a down-on-his-luck street ball coach that’s desperate to make a big name for himself at the annual Rucker Park tournament and win $100,00 prize that comes with it. His dream of that particular prize takes a nose dive when his best player, Casper Jones (Aaron Gordon), jumps ship to join Dax’s longtime rival, Mookie Bass (Nick Kroll); finding Dax’s other team members walking away from before the tournament begins. To make matter worse, Dax’s materialistic girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish) breaks up with him over his loss of Casper; putting the young man’s frame of mind at rock bottom. About to give up, Dax’s fortunes change he sees an older man teach a group of “young bloods” some basketball lessons on the court. Learning that this is street ball legend Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving), who’s talents are famous at Rucker Park, Dax convinces Drew to take one last shot at the Rucker Park tournament. The only condition is that Drew gets to use his former team, who dominated the blacktop court for years before they all had a falling out. Dax and Drew then embark on a road trip to find Drew’s old teammates, including Preacher (Chris Webber), Wilbur “Lights” Wallace (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal) and try to win the tournament.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Who doesn’t love a good “sports” movie? I know I do. While I was never really gifted for being athletic (probably could’ve done football or something, but didn’t have the technical hand-to-eye coordination down), I’ve always enjoyed watching a good sports themed movie, with most “underdog” endeavors being a personal favorite of mine. Normally, I usually gravitate towards more football ones, including Draft Day, Remember the Titans, and Any Given Sunday, but I have seeing a few basketball themed movies over the years. Of course, the one I probably would be my favorite would have to be Space Jam (yes, I know that’s more of goofy kid’s movie), but it had plenty to love about (nostalgia references included) as well as some famous basketball pros during the time of its release, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and several others. Probably a good personal favorite runner-up (a bit more wholesome drama) would be Glory Road, which I found to my liking and is what I would consider to be something similar to Remember the Titans. All in all, sport themed feature films (including the basketball themed ones) are good, especially when majority of them, while treading into familiar narrative territory, still offer some wholesome (sometimes “feel good”) entertainment vibes throughout its cinematic premise.
Naturally, this brings back to talking about Uncle Drew, a 2018 feature film that brings the blacktop court of basketball back to the silver screen in the latest Hollywood sports themed endeavor. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much “internet buzz” about this movie during its announcement and / or its production development. That’s why I was sort of “surprised” when I saw the movie’s various trailers (mostly when I went to weekly theater outings at my local theater). Judging from those movie trailers, the premise of Uncle Drew seemed familiar, but seemed to sport (yes, I used that word) a comical nuance throughout its potential underdog presentations as well as using some recognizable names (i.e. Haddish, Kroll, and Howery). Plus, the idea of having old basketball pro players in the movies seemed pretty funny (at least to me). All in all, I was pretty interested in seeing this movie, which I did a week after its release during the summer of 2018. Unfortunately, getting to do this review sort of fell through the cracks as I kind of pushed it aside to do other movie reviews. Sorry…my bad. Well, not I’m finally read to do my movie review for the film Uncle Drew. What did I think of it? To me, it was actually pretty good. Well, it doesn’t really break any new ground (in terms of being a sport comedy movie), Uncle Drew does have plenty to like as the film certainly does hits the right overall tone and finding a solid chemistry amongst its cast. Its not a “game changer” for basketball themed films, but it doesn’t have to be (and that’s a good thing).
Uncle Drew is directed by Charles Stone III, who previous directed such films like Drumline, Mr. 3000, and Paid in Full. Right from the get-go, Stone makes Uncle Drew exactly what it is…. never really trying to make it something that it isn’t. This approach makes the features feel a bit odd, but the absurdities that follow throughout the movie’s runtime work as Dax and Drew recollect Drew’s old team members to play in the Rucker Tournament. There’s a sense of familiarity to the story, which is a “underdog” theme, and Stone realizes that to a point. Thus, Stone doesn’t approach Uncle Drew as serious / gravitas endeavor, but rather a pure fun piece of a comedy movie, especially how certain scenarios play out. Additionally, Stone smartly utilizes the film’s cast in the feature, playing up their strengths and letting their screen presence (and overall comradery) make Uncle Drew entertaining to watch. Plus, using the sport of basketball is also fun to see as well, keeping the moments “on the blacktop court” fun to see. It’s overly dramatic (in the comedic sense), but just enough to make even the most diehard sports fan pleased, especially since some of the old favorites NBA players on the big screen.
What also helps the movie is that Stone keeps Uncle Drew on a straightforward path, moving at brisk path with a runtime of 103 minutes long (one hour and forty-three minutes). This means that the movie never really drags or feels bloated, which makes the overall watching experience of the movie relatively good without none of the unnecessary subplots. What ultimately works in the movie is the film’s humor, which will make many laugh out loud through the various one-liners and gags that are presented throughout the movie. To be honest, I found myself laughing (more than most) in the humor that Uncle Drew had to offer…. more so than a lot of other comedy endeavors I’ve seeing this year (i.e. Game Night, Action Point, Overboard, etc.). What I did notice is that while the dialogue isn’t exactly sharp or witty in its humor-based scenes, it’s most thanks to Uncle Drew’s cast that makes the various jokes and gags work.
In terms of presentation, Uncle Drew is a solid endeavor that makes whatever on-screen (i.e. background, characters, etc.) look pleasing to the eye. Since the movie isn’t really devoted to time in its cinematic nuances by way and means of being flashy with blockbuster aesthetics nor Oscar-worthy dramatics, the film seems more “relaxed” in allowing to play off its absurd situations and character-based moments. This can be said for the movie’s overall “look and feel”, which does meet the industry standards of today’s comedy endeavors. Thus, the efforts made by Karsten Gopinath (cinematography), Doug J. Meerdink (production designs), and Matthew Groves (set decorations) as well as other technical / filmmaking areas give a good representation of how Uncle Drew is as cinematic endeavor. Again, it’s something truly great, but nor is deplorable. It’s somewhere in the middle and for a feature film like this…. that’s a good thing. However, I do have to say the entire make-up design team should be commended for their efforts in “aging” all the pro basketball players in the movie. Lastly, while the film’s score, which is composed by Christopher Lennertz, is pretty good, Uncle Drew does boast a catchy soundtrack, with an urban / hip hop musical selection that many will recognize throughout the movie.
Despite the inherit humorous nature of the “game of basketball” and the hilarious-based premise of using old pro players for several of the main characters, Uncle Drew does suffer in a few areas, which keep the film from reaching cinematic greatness. Well, the movie itself wasn’t destined for greatness…. but you know what I mean. Perhaps the most notable problem that the movie faces is within its own story or rather the formulaic narrative that’s presented within the story. As stated above, the classic sports “underdog” tale is a tried and true method, especially if it’s based on a true story. Unfortunately, Uncle Drew isn’t based on real-life tale and is essentially a “cookie cutter / paint-by-numbers” narrative of that classic “underdog” story. Because of this, majority of the movie is fairly predictable, seeing obstacles and challenges (and their ultimate resolution) are visibly coming before they happen on-screen. Again, Stone makes approaches the film as “it is what it is” type vibe, but even a little more creativeness and / or originality could’ve helped strength the feature.
The same can be said in the film’s script handling, which was done by Jay Longino. To his credit, Longino does provide plenty of humorous based lines throughout the film’s script, but it is hampered by cliched scenarios that really don’t have much substance beyond their own subtext nuances. Again, the story being told is quite familiar and (to be honest) has been done in better in other movies. The same can be said about the film’s variety of characters. I’ll explain more on it below, but the core of the problem is that Uncle Drew’s characters (be major and minor) are mostly one-dimensional, save for the film’s main character. Stone (along with Longino) rely heavily on the charismatic and magnetic personalities of the cast to elevate the thinly-written characters, but they (the cast) can only do so much. Thus, certain subplots storylines and character motivations in Uncle Drew are underdeveloped. Perhaps the best way to describe Uncle Drew (as a whole movie) is a “broad” underdog sports comedy, for everything about the movie (positive or negative) is very broad and displayed in large broad strokes. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to viewer’s taste for the film.
The cast of Uncle Drew is a mixture of recognizable faces of actors and actresses as well as former basketball celebrities that populate the screen here and there. While all of them give relatively solid performances (you can tell all of them are having fun working on this film), their characterizations are (like I said above) are a bit thin and not as completely as well-rounded as the film wants them to be. Naturally, while the character of Uncle Drew is the titular character of the feature (the movie’s title namesake), the true main character lies with Dax Winslow, who is played by comedian actor Lil Rey Howery. Known for his roles in Rel, Get Out, and Friends of the People, Howery is strong in the role of Dax, grounding the feature in a somewhat relatable “everyman” bravado who is very likeable and easy to root for. Naturally, given his comedic background and delivery of dialogue lines, Howery also make for a hilarious point of view for the audience, commenting (every now and again) on how wildly absurdity that surrounds him with funny one-liners. This is apparent when he converses with the character of Uncle Drew, who both Howery and Irving share great chemistry with each other. Plus, it also helps that the character of Dax has the most fulfilling character arc of the entire cast; much to the dismay of everyone else however. The only downside is that Howery (at least to me) could’ve been easily played by someone else…. like comedian actor Kevin Hart. Not to knock on Howery’s acting talents or credibly, but the role of Dax Winslow seems more of a built for Hart and it’s as if Hart passed on the role and Howery is more of the “secondary / standing in” for the part. Still, I think that Howery was good as Dax and definitely finds his comedic rhythm in the movie as Uncle Drew’s central protagonist.
The rest of the main supporting players of the film consist of the pro basketball players that make up Uncle Drew’s ensemble. Obviously, as one can imagine, none of them are theatrical-talented thespians of the dramatic arts, but in a sports comedy like this…. they don’t’ have to be. Of them all, Kyrie Irving (who played for the Boston Celtics) gets the most screen-time in movie as Uncle Drew himself. Irving arguably gets his character down pat and is actually surprisingly funny in the movie as Drew, especially in how he interacts with Howery’s Dax. The rest of the “old ball” players that make up Uncle Drew’s team, including Reggie Miller (who played for the Indiana Pacers) as the partially blind Wilbur “Lights” Wallace, Chris Webber (who played for Golden State Warriors, Washington Bullets / Wizards, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, and Detroit Pistons) as religious church minster Preacher, Shaquille O’Neal (who played for the Orlando Magics, LA Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics) as martial arts dojo teacher Big Fella (O’Neal does give a better performance than he did back in 1996’s Kazaam), and Nate Robinson (who played for the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunders, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, and Denver Nuggets) as the selective mutism / partially paraplegic character named Boots. Together, this ensemble cast of pro basketball players are clearly having fun with their respective roles, which makes it easy for us (the viewers) to buy in and go along for the ride throughout the movie. Indeed, while there character aren’t particularly well-crafted and feel a bit generic, their infectious energy and how they all play off of each other definitely works and elevates Uncle Drew from just being an otherwise derivate sports movie.
In addition, WNBA pro basketball player Lisa Leslie (who played for the Los Angeles Sparks) plays the character of Betty Lou (Preacher’s wife) and like the rest of the pro basketball players certainly joins in on the fun and has a “ball” (no pun intended) in the role.
In the supporting roles category, comedian actor Nick Kroll (The League and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie) stands out the most in his character role of Mookie Bass, a somewhat rival street ball coach to Dax. There’s not denying that the character of Mookie is nothing more than an over-the-top caricature villain that’s being dialed up to a more “cartoon-ish” threat (more goofy than villainous), but Kroll’s seems like a perfect choice in that regard and makes his hilarious iteration of the character memorable in Uncle Drew. Behind Kroll’s Mookie is rising comedian actress Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip and Night School) as Dax’s materialistic girlfriend Jess. While Haddish is becoming a prominent actress in mainstream Hollywood movies, her role in Uncle Drew is a small one, delegated to few scenes here and there in the feature. Still, for the sum parts that she is in, Haddish does drum up laughs in the movie as Jess (especially one hilarious bit during the film’s ending credits). After Haddish is actress Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse and In Contempt) as Maya, Boot’s granddaughter as well as a new love interest for Dax. While Ash’s acting talents are fine in the movie, her character isn’t quite there. The whole love interest between her and Dax seems shoehorned into the movie and ultimately doesn’t work…never really developing or even warranting one in the feature. Thus, the character of Maya is the weakest one in Uncle Drew, despite Ash’s attempts.
Round out the cast (and in very minor roles) is NBA pro basketball player (for the Orlando Magics) is Aaron Gordon as Dax’s once shining superstar player Casper Jones, and actors J.B Smoove (Almost Christmas and Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Mike Epps (Next Friday and The Hangover) as Angelo and Louis, two Harlem residents who remember Uncle Drew and his team.
Dax Winslow rounds a group of old-timer basketball players in an attempt to win at the annual Rucker Park tournament in the movie Uncle Drew. Director Charles Stone III’s latest film sees the classic story arc of an underdog sports motion picture endeavor and presents it as a fun splash of comedy, drama, and heart; presenting the tale to be told in an entertaining way. While the film can’t escape its overall formulaic narrative trajectory and generalization of being overtly predictable, the film ultimately succeeds (more than it should) by Stone and his team delivering a simplistic movie that showcases the “love of the game”, humorous bits, and a strong chemistry amongst its cast. To me, I actually enjoyed this movie. Yes, it wasn’t exactly new or original, but it was still light, fun, quite entertaining, and definitely has some replay value to it (at least to me). Thus, despite its predictable story, I would give Uncle Drew my “recommended” stamp of approval as well as a favorable “rent it”, especially to those looking for an amusing sport comedy and / or NBA fans who are looking to see some of their “old favorites” having fun on the big screen. In the end, while it may not meet the somewhat “gold standards” of a basketball / sport themed movies elite, Uncle Drew still retains a light and entertaining underdog team premise. Simply take the movie (for what its worth) at face value and you’ll enjoy it.
3.8 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: June 29th, 2018
Reviewed On: December 17th, 2018
Uncle Drew is 103 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language, and brief nudity