I don’t know the degree to which Uncle Drewwill have universal appeal to all audiences, so therefore I don’t know the degree to which everyone will give it a pass similar to the one I’m about to register. Maybe not everyone is in NBA withdrawal, but as one whose weekend pub crawls are now only populated with World Cup enthusiasts and oddly dedicated early-season baseball buffs, this movie is a welcome bonus round of basketball. Not everyone will chuckle knowingly at the in-jokes among the film’s cast of b-ball legends in elaborate geriatric makeup and their willingness to poke fun at the more notorious moments in their careers. Plenty of folks like to reference Space Jamin their memes, but not everyone went to see that movie as an adolescent at the peak of Michael Jordan’s captivation of the universe, and therefore think back on it fondly in spite of the fact that it has aged about as well as deviled eggs in the hot summer sun.
While we’re on the subject of summer, Uncle Drewseems to embody the season as a feeling and a theme. This movie is the epitome of “Summer Fun” – meant to be enjoyed with popcorn, candy, and soda within an air-conditioned refuge on a balmy day. Soda in particular is essential to this enterprise, for without Pepsi, “Uncle Drew” might not exist. Yes, this is a movie based on a series of soda commercials, a sub-genre slotted one rung closer to the bottom of the film adaptation barrel than “based on an SNL sketch.” The resulting production is about as slapdash as one might imagine, though it’s the kind of mess that feels more organized simply by virtue of being so genial, brightly colored, and set to a fab soundtrack. Its story is so breezy you might not even notice it, its pro athlete-laden cast is surprisingly infectious, and its vibe is about as crisp and bubbly as a fresh bottle of…well, I shouldn’t veer into product placement.
Kyrie Irving stars in the titular role, one that he’s turned into a viral sensation since making his first appearance as the geriatric street ball wunderkind in 2012. Uncle Drew is a white-haired, sweatsuit-wearing grumpy old man who prefers old funk to modern “hippity-hop” music, cranks up the heat in his retro van even on the hottest summer day, but nevertheless retains the skills to ball out on anyone who dares check him on the playground. It’s the kind of concept that feels entertaining for the duration of its one note – ya know, like a series of short form Pepsi commercials. What sustains this concept, and this character, over the course of a 103-minute film is Irving himself, who may or may not be able to play a wide range of roles in future films, but who by this point seems to have an innate understanding of how to turn this character into something fully realized. Uncle Drew is a study in contradictions – in terms of cadence in both speech and physicality, shifting at will from parody to earnestness, from limping old dude to strident street baller, and somehow making it all seem contained within the same believable character. That’s a testament to Irving’s inimitable charm and legitimate talent.
That same alchemy works for every member of this cast. Basketball legends Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Lisa Leslie, Nate Robinson, and of course, Shaquille O’Neal, appear to be having the time of their lives on a film set that probably imposed very few rules. Seasoned comedians like Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll flex as much as they can within the PG-13 confines. Lil Rel Howery holds them all together, upgrading from show-stealer in Get Out to the de facto leading man here, as the down-and-out coach who seeks to lead this group of old-timers to a Harlem street ball championship against young show-boats…who happen to be coached by his childhood rival. If that feels a little precious, that’s because this screenplay has been cobbled together with a variety of clichéd remnants – it’s sort of a road movie, sort of a sports tournament movie, sort of a generic feel-good flick about platitudes of life and The Game. It’s a full-on lark, but two decades later, I fully acknowledge it’s better than Space Jam, and I’d rather have Uncle Drewplaying on 12 flat screens at the bar instead of late-June MLB or World Cup soccer.