Sometimes as a critic it is just best to see a comedy with a real audience, you know like the ones who actually pay to see movies and want to be there? Such was the case Thursday night when I caught one of the first public preview screenings of the new Septuagenarian basketball flick, Uncle Drew which stars Kyrie Irving, Shaquille O’Neal and a bevy of NBA all-stars who not only prove they have game but also can actually act. Who knew? As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch) the crowd I saw this with acted like they were at the finals or something. They ate the whole thing up – and then some. Guess what? Uncle Drew plays like gangbusters as a nice summer comedy diversion that may be derivative in some ways (Eddie Murphy movies and Barbershop come to mind) but is still a slam dunk for laughs and genuine heart.
Based on the Pepsi web video , the Uncle Drew concept has now been expanded to a feature length romp by writer Jay Longino and director Charles Stone III, and they pull out all the stops to deliver a good time
at the movies, nothing more but also nothing less. This could be a real sleeper once word of mouth takes hold and, increasingly rare for studio comedies, it keeps the F-words at bay and settles for a family-appropriate PG-13. Hoops fans are in for a treat at the very least. The plot revolves around Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a part-time basketball coach and full-time sneaker salesman whose dream is finally to win Harlem’s annual Rucker Classic with his team, as well as the $100,000 prize. But hopes are dashed when archrival Mookie (a very funny Nick Kroll), who did him wrong on the court when they were kids and ruined his own superstar dreams, steals his star player and then his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish getting to do her thing). Depressed, he comes upon the mythical, now-seventysomething legend Uncle Drew (Irving) who proves he still has some magic for the game as well as a reason to gather up the geezers he once played with in his prime 50 years earlier and who now have a chance to make up for a devastating loss in the Rucker Classic a half-century ago.
So what do they do? Drew gets in the driver’s seat and sets off with Dax in his cool ancient van, complete with 8-track’70’s soul music, and proceeds to line up the old — and I mean old – teammates: a preacher (Chris Webber), a blind guy named Lights (Reggie Miller), the wheelchair-bound Boots (Nate Robinson) — living a depressed existence in a home and looked after his loving granddaughter (Erica Ash) — and Big Fella (O’Neal), who is the most reluctant to join up due to what we eventually learn is a lifelong fight over a mutual girl both he and Drew desired. The stuff in the van is over the top but blessedly hilarious, especially a chase led by Lights as he blindly takes the wheel. There is also the obligatory dance-off at a club, where the old timers prove they can outdo the younger set as they once again regain the mojo of their youth and find a reason to live again despite the vagaries of aging.
Add into this mix Preacher’s wife Betty Lou, who tries to keep him in church to no avail but eventually comes in very handy when she is needed on the court for the inevitable Big Game. She’s played nicely by WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie. And in a tip of the hat to one of the movies that clearly inspired this film, there’s a great scene with comic J.B. Smoove in — what else? — a barbershop. All of this leads to the raucous championship game where, rather incredibly (just go with it), this over-the-hill gang coached by Dax has made the finals, of course against Mookie’s much younger team.
The real surprise is seeing all of these NBA stars being very deft at comedy and character acting even under mounds of prosthetic make up to be almost unrecognizable as themselves. All of them score points far above what the usual sports stars manage when they switch to acting (and that includes Shaq, who once starred in the regrettable Kazaam). In the center of it all, Howery more than meets the potential he showed when he stole every scene as the TSA agent in Get Out. And as the title character, Irving handles both the comic hijinks and the more poignant stuff he is asked to do. Is it too early to call this the feel-good comedy of the summer? I think not. Producers are Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey. Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment release it today.
Do you plan to see Uncle Drew? Let us know what you think.