“Uncle Drew” was a fun movie to make. That’s not a shot in the dark, but a fact. The credits of director Charles Stone III’s latest film shows the cast and crew in good spirits, cracking jokes and goofing around on set.
It’s a healthy mix of comedy and basketball, Lil Rel Howery making people laugh, and Nate Robinson dunking on Shaquille O’Neal. It’s in those closing credits that the film crystallizes into what it wants to be: a movie about a bunch of people who love basketball and trash-talking in equal measure. This is the film Stone (“Drumline”) probably wanted to make. What he actually made is something else.
Drawing from a script by Jay Longino (“Skiptrace”), we open on Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a mid-30s Foot Locker employee whose passion for basketball has translated into entering a street-ball tournament at Rucker Park in Harlem. Traumatized by a vicious, buzzer-beating block, he won’t play. Instead, he assumes the role of coach and begins recruiting playground legend Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving).
Drew is skeptical at first, but intrigued by the idea of teaching old-school basketball to new-school players. Together Drew and Dax embark on a road-trip to recruit their team of geriatrics, including Big Fella (Shaq), Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Betty Lou (Lis Leslie).
This journey to cobble together the old squad should be more fun that it is. Although you could say that about most of “Uncle Drew.” The onus is less on the performances; each former player holds his/her own. Miller especially gets some mileage out of his character, a three-point specialist who’s legally blind and can’t help but make comical facial reactions.
Irving is solid in the title role; his down-to-earth, low-key energy sometimes turns somnambulant. He’s not a splashy performer, but he’s also not an incompetent one. Given the workload, he manages to not embarrass himself, which is an accomplishment for anyone in a feature film, let alone someone with no dramatic training.
But the film routinely gets bogged down in its plodding plot. Drew and Big Fella have an old score to settle, but both are too stubborn to make amends. Dax is fighting to overcome his longtime rival Mookie (Nick Kroll), who has taken his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish as Jess) and his former star player (Aaron Gordon). Preacher is running away from Betty Lou, who’s livid about him leaving the church for basketball.
Every character is assigned a definable characteristic and a problem to be solved, but “Uncle Drew” is one those movies that reveals itself within the first ten minutes. I won’t spoil the outcome, as Dax and Drew lead their team through the tournament — you can expect the narrative to unfold predictably, to hit every beat you know is coming.
There isn’t one surprising turn here, which is oddly surprising considering all the talent on screen. Howery and Haddish are two of the most exciting, emerging talents in contemporary comedy, between their respective roles in “Get Out” and “Girl’s Trip” and their exceptional contributions to the acclaimed, now-canceled “Carmichael Show.” These brilliant performers are woefully misused: Dax’s straight-man bits fall flat, while Jess — whose role in the film is, essentially, to make Dax feel bad about himself — just isn’t funny. Perhaps the cast was too faithful to Longino’s script and not given the room to improvise.
What’s tougher to assess is how audiences uninterested in basketball will respond. Mileage always varies, but the film is worthwhile if you love the sport. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to watch Kroll yelling at Reggie Miller as if he’s Spike Lee in Madison Square Garden, or to see Chris Webber almost call a time-out when there are none remaining. There are innumerable inside-basketball bits and factoids that NBA fans will relish.
If you’re in that camp, then you probably don’t need a review to tell you about “Uncle Drew.” If you’re anyone else, well, you’re not missing much here. There’s a version of this movie that’s tighter, funnier, and more palatable to a general audience. Stay for the credits and you might see it.