Maybe Call it a Comeback
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Charles Stone III, U.S, Lionsgate
“When you’re doing a story about old people you can afford to be sentimental,” Howard Hawks told an interviewer in 1974, regarding an atypically mawkish moment in his Ball of Fire (1941) in which a gang of graying professors harmonize “Genevieve.” Combine this license to schmaltz with the sports movie, the natural habitat of soaring against-all-odds inspiration and masculine melodrama, and you have Uncle Drew, a feature film inauspiciously based on a basketball court–dominating geezer played by NBA superstar point guard Kyrie Irving in old-age makeup in a series of commercials for Pepsi Max, here seen putting back together his geriatric teammates for one more shot at the Rucker Classic street ball tournament in Harlem.
Uncle Drew, directed by the sporadically excellent Charles Stone III, does not play a finesse game. In the space of a single scene, it shows us a blind man (Lights, a myopic ex-sharpshooter played by Reggie Miller) restored his sight, and a wheelchair-bound man (Boots, a retirement home escapee played by Nate Robinson) rising to not only walk again but to ball out. Its climax involves the replay of a traumatic blocked shot that has haunted street ball coach Dax (Lil Rel Howery) since his grade school days, and a chance at redemption. It contains a crowd-pleaser dance-off, and not one, but two Viagra jokes. It is clotted with clichés like “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing,” and draws frequent flagrant fouls for manhandling emotional manipulation. Of course, I had a blast most of the time I was watching it. Did you know it’s possible to mist up and roll your eyes at the same time?
The movie’s off-the-rack plot involves Dax losing his star prospect, Casper (Orlando Magic power forward Aaron Gordon), to his old rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll), and with him any chance of taking the $100,000 tournament pot, so essential to placating Dax’s shopaholic girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish). Short a team, Dax decides to take his chances with Rucker legend Uncle Drew after serendipitously seeing the elusive character in action, and even agrees to let him have his old squad, rounded out by Preacher (Chris Webber), an ordained minister who slam dunks infants in his baptismal font, and Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal), gruff master at a karate dojo, who nurses a grudge against Drew for bedding his girlfriend sometime back in the heyday of Sly & the Family Stone.
Mounting this comeback story, director Stone III is himself working on something of a comeback. Presumably he would have had no compunctions taking on a commercial crossover character, having broken into the big leagues by virtue of the success of his “Whassup?” commercial campaign for Budweiser in the late ’90s—a snippet of one of these is visible briefly on a waiting-room television set. This set the stage for a brief run of first-rate features with primarily African-American casts—crime drama Paid in Full (2002), marching band musical Drumline (2002), and baseball comedy Mr. 3000 (2004)—which came to a swift and complete halt. Now, following a little-noted VOD comeback with Lila & Eve (2015), Stone III has come back in fighting fit with the twofer of Uncle Drew and Step Sisters, released through Netflix in January, a bouncy, female-centric return to the campus scene of Drumline studded with tart put-downs. (“I do not choreograph all that dopeness so heifers can perform it mediocrely.”)
In mounting a case for elevating Stone III as an auteur doing good, nose-down work in the commercial cinema, as was done years ago for studio system grinders like Hawks, it’s simple enough to tease out his abiding themes. Uncle Drew is most clearly connected to Drumline, Mr. 3000, and Step Sisters, for Stone III’s latest deals, as do those films, with larger-than-life individuals struggling to adjust to the self-suppressing demands of group dynamics. In Step Sisters, black fraternity girl Megalyn Echikunwoke has to negotiate a minefield of prickly personalities after she makes a deal to teach the secrets of Greek stepping to a majority white frat. In Drumline, Nick Cannon’s snare drum prodigy, an incoming freshman on the campus of fictional HBC Atlanta A&T University, has to tame an oversized ego that puts him at odds with Orlando Jones’s head of the school band—a line in Uncle Drew, in which teamwork on the court is compared to “a perfectly orchestrated symphony” in which “not any instrument is more important than any other,” might as well have come from the mouth of Jones’s character. Even closer in spirit is Bernie Mac vehicle Mr. 3000, in which Mac plays a onetime Milwaukee Brewers slugger who, after selfishly quitting on his teammates upon reaching the career-defining 3,000-hit mark, is dragged back into action at age 47 after it’s discovered that a clerical error awarded him three unearned hits. Uniting these films is the narrative of overweening personal pride learning to submit and serve the greater good of the team—hardly an original story, but revisited with sufficient consistency that we may reasonably assume it has real resonance for the director, who has made platitudes about team spirit his home court.
Itself a team sport of sorts, filmmaking requires that one keep in practice to keep up, particularly the middle-range type—less reliant on bolts of inspiration than on well-drilled instincts—which is Stone III’s bailiwick. (It’s an advantage that Hawks and his workhorse ilk had back in the assembly line days—it’s hard to keep on the job steadily enough to really stay sharp today.) Here and in Step Sisters he’s come back around since the misbegotten Lila & Eve, but early on the comic timing seems off in Uncle Drew, the laugh-out-loud bits thin on the ground, a charismatic performer like Haddish working overtime to stretch thin material to cover her scenes. It is tempting to blame the screenplay by Jay Longino, whose most recent credit is Skiptrace (2016), the uncredited Midnight Run remake and Chinese tourism advert starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville, whose Irving Zisman character in various Jackass productions provides a precedent for Uncle Drew. A closing credits blooper reel, however, would have you believe the shoot was heavily reliant on improv, which benefits some performers more than others—Kroll, playing his gum-snapping white boy villain part to the hilt, pushes things into the realm of pure parody, as when goading the stands at Rucker with a cry of “That’s right, old people are overrated.”
Where Stone III hasn’t slowed down is in his capacity to follow the choreography of bodies in motion with cinematographic flash—as seen in Drumline’s band drills, the traversing of the outfield in Mr. 3000, or the percussive production numbers in Step Sisters. The blacktop action here is mostly rim-rocking highlight reel stuff, but where the film’s tonal shifts are sometimes fumbling, Stone III, a frequent music video director, has a second-sense feel for locating a groove between soundtrack and image, and the combination of buoyant island-influenced late-period Dipset heater “Stronger” and a makeup-aged WNBA great Lisa Leslie (playing Preacher’s wife, an injury substitution) smoothly hitting jumpers makes for pure pleasure. When laced up and in transition, Uncle Drew gives screen hoops as good as anything that has appeared in a fiction feature in the near quarter-century since Shaq made his screen debut in William Friedkin/Ron Shelton’s Blue Chips (1994), a film to be treasured for its scene of Bob Cousy dead-ass draining free throws, if nothing else.
Like Mr. 3000, Uncle Drew is a film that deals in the twin themes of athletic challenge and advancing age, but while the former, working within a genre framework, heeds the reality of physical deterioration and the adjustments that it demands as generally experienced and understood, the latter denies this almost entirely, opting instead to operate as something in the line of a folk tale. In the movie’s overture, we get a faux ESPN 30 for 30 segment in which an all-star lineup of former NBA greats are seen discussing the mysterious figure of Uncle Drew, who comes off as elusive and wreathed in mystery as the Sasquatch. Whereas Mac is playing a character of approximately his own years, with the middle-aged paunch to show for it, Uncle Drew and his team of seventy-somethings throw down like they’re still in their prime—and in some cases they are: Irving, currently on the roster of the Boston Celtics, is just 26, while the oldest of the group is 52-year-old Miller.
A few laugh lines about enlarged prostates aside, Uncle Drew is a film that basically works from the comic and dramatic possibilities of denying age—the astonishing sight of snowy-haired geezers crashing the boards with full-speed ferocity, which makes for a good commercial prank, but is a dicey prospect at feature length. Mr. 3000, by contrast, is concerned with the grudging acceptance of age and the process of learning to work within the limitations it imposes—something more recognizable from lived experience, to be sure, but also with more comic possibility, as in the creaky, groaning foreplay duet between Mac and old flame/foil Angela Bassett. (Stone III is notable for treating his screen romances as more than an obligatory subplot, and as such the interplay between Howery and love interest Erica Ash disappoints.) Uncle Drew finds room for one cemetery visit and one big health scare—the setup for a nice gag that makes for a quiet parenthetical in the bombastic big game, observing a gown-clad O’Neal padding through a hospital ward—but it’s never wholly convincing when milking the sentimental associations of old age while mostly denying its ravages.
Failing to sharply define the dichotomies of age and youth at its heart, Uncle Drew can’t then cash in by later confounding them, and as such often seems muddled—a showboating movie about the importance of fundamentals, a slow R&B movie whose soundtrack is juiced with high-energy Harlem-centric hip-hop. These aren’t minor quibbles, but the very fact that Uncle Drew warrants quibbling is a measure of its qualified success, for it belongs to two individually unpromising subgenres that, in combination, should almost certainly be dire: the commercial spinoff movie, à la Super Bowl-ad inspired Space Jam (1996), and the novelty makeup movie—not for nothing is The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) no one’s favorite John Huston picture. Realizing perhaps that certain levels of nuance and delicacy will be inaccessible to athlete-cum-actors working behind putty masks, Stone III pushes the proceedings towards sheer shamelessness, winning goodwill on the basis of plain old chutzpah. As Dream Teams come together so rarely in the convoluted, package-deal-driven world of pop filmmaking, a word of praise is due for the likes of a Charles Stone III, who can still eke out a “W” with whatever he’s got to play with.