With the World Cup and Wimbledon in full swing, studios have largely counter-programmed UK cinema releases opposite the sport for the last few weeks. It’s surprising that two sports comedies landed in cinemas this week – the Rob Brydon-starring synchronised swimming film Swimming With Men, and une movie de Pepsi Productions, Uncle Drew, which stars Lil Rey Howery and Tiffany Haddish alongside a squad of pro basketballers disguised in old-age prosthetics.
Uncle Drew centres around 26-year-old NBA player Kyrie Irving’s septugenarian character, who first appeared in a Pepsi Max commercial in 2012. Here, he’s cast as an urban legend of Harlem streetball who has to team up with frustrated young coach Dax (Howery) to recover his shot at a major tournament.
Having lost his own talented players to a rival coach (Nick Kroll) and been thrown out on the street by his shopaholic girlfriend (Haddish), Dax turns to Uncle Drew to help him put together a new team. What he gets instead is an old team, as the unlikely pair travel across the country to reunite a roster of similarly aged-up players, played by Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Surprisingly, for a film commissioned by a soft drinks company, this really has its heart in the right place. In the lineage of comedies driven by personalities who aren’t best known for acting, this aspires more to The Blues Brothers than Space Jam in its tone, introducing its cast through a “mission from God” style road-trip. It’s regrettable then, that the script by Jay Longino isn’t anywhere near funny enough.
Granted, the film is mostly going for chuckles rather than belly laughs, and there’s one very funny scene of physical comedy at a christening, where a baby looks in danger of being dunked in a baptismal pool by Webber’s over-enthusiastic Preacher. It’s not even that much of a problem that the film follows all the beats of this kind of comedy right on schedule, because predictable as it is, it’s still a gently entertaining watch.
But all you can get out of it is based on the surprisingly good cast of basketballers. By no means am I an NBA fan, but I still really enjoyed the performances as performances. The use of prosthetics is in keeping with some of Eddie Murphy’s comedies, but it’s not there to mask the players’ lack of acting chops. It’s a warm film that relies primarily on personality, and despite all the inevitable jokes about elderly men in the script, the players play it sincerely, especially Irving, Webber, and Robinson.
Their physical performances may be spot on, but the film runs into real problems whenever any of them have to say any of the leaden dialogue. Without being able to coast on charm, you can see the more seasoned comic actors floundering with this material. Howery makes an obviously ADR’d reference to Get Out that leaves you wondering if he thought his character in Get Out looked like him, Haddish does what she does as well as she can, and Kroll revels in playing the douchiest character he’s ever player, including the literal douche he voiced in Sausage Party.
Although the match scenes are largely tension-free, director Charles Stone III brings a kinetic quality to them. Even he’s in familiar territory, having traced a similar arc of a retired pro returning to his game in the Bernie Mac vehicle Mr. 3000. In the end, it’s hard to get around the flaws in the script, which has too few jokes and about far, far too many uses of the phrase “youngblood”.
Uncle Drew has some very nice comic performances and a heartfelt message, but its by-the-numbers script dunks it into mediocrity. If you discover it on Film4 one afternoon in a few years’ time, there are a few things to like, but it’s far too light on laughs to recommend for sports fans with so much going on at the moment. Still, at least it’s more than just a soft drink’s answer to Space Jam.
Uncle Drew is in UK cinemas now.