Uncle Drew isn’t a great sports comedy, but it’s highly entertaining thanks to nailing the right tone and the chemistry of its leads.
Inspired by the Pepsi advertising campaign that saw NBA star Kyrie Irving portray the same character, Uncle Drew looks to take the concept of the television ads and expand it to a full-length feature. In the past, several basketball players have attempted to make the jump to Hollywood, but the results are decidedly mixed at best. Because of the genre’s questionable track record, there were some doubts about whether or not Uncle Drew would be able to rise above similar titles and deliver something a little more satisfying. Fortunately, it does just that. Uncle Drew isn’t a great sports comedy, but it’s highly entertaining thanks to nailing the right tone and the chemistry of its leads.
Dax (Lil Rel Howery) is a down-on-his-luck street ball coach desperate to make a splash at the annual Rucker Park tournament and win the $100,000 purse that comes with it. His dream of securing financial stability takes a hit when his best player, Casper (Aaron Gordon), jumps ship to join Dax’s rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll). Dax tries to recruit a new roster before the tournament begins, but is turned down by everyone he asks.
About to give up, Dax’s fortunes change when he sees an older man teach a “young blood” some basketball lessons on the court. Discovering that this is street ball legend Uncle Drew (Irving), Dax convinces Drew to take one last shot at Rucker Park glory. The only condition is that Drew gets to use his former team, who dominated the blacktops for years before a falling out. Dax and Drew embark on a road trip to find Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal) and try to win the tournament.
Fortunately, Uncle Drew knows exactly what it is, and doesn’t ask the audience to take things too seriously. Director Charles Stone III maintains the proper tone throughout its brisk running time, keeping the proceedings extremely fun. The humor of seeing a bunch of septuagenarians play on the court never really wears thin, and Stone smartly makes sure Uncle Drew’s team isn’t always portrayed as an unstoppable force (see: a sequence where they go against a team of teenage girls). As enjoyable as Uncle Drew is to watch, however, its script (written by Jay Longino) is hamstrung by a thin story that follows a somewhat predictable trajectory. Additionally, many conflicts introduced are resolved in a matter of minutes, making any dramatic moments come across as forced. This approach is appreciated to an extent (Uncle Drew never gets dragged down), though some plot points are merely filler.
Characterization is a mixed bag as well. None of the roles have much depth to them, which hurts in crafting the dynamic between Drew and his teammates. Drew’s relationship with Big Fella is given the most development due to their shared history, but the other players mainly exist to provide laughs and round out the team. Early on, the screenplay is a bit at odds with itself, placing an emphasis on how great Drew was in his prime, which minimizes the unseen contributions of his supporting cast. As a result, certain sequences that are meant to have significant weight feel a bit flat, since so little time is dedicated to showing the tight bond the group had back in the day. To their credit, the actors do the best they can to making Drew’s squad feel like old friends torn apart by time, getting together for a final run. Their interactions are among the highlights of the film.
While Uncle Drew is the titular character, the emotional core lies with Dax. Howery is strong in the role, grounding the proceedings with a relatable everyman who’s easy to root for. He makes for an hysterical audience surrogate, frequently commenting on the absurdity that surrounds him with funny one-liners. Howery plays well off of the pro players that make up Uncle Drew’s ensemble. Obviously, none of them are world-class thespians, but they don’t have to be. The likes of Irving, Miller, Webber, and O’Neal are clearly having fun with their parts, which makes it easy for audiences to buy in and go along for the ride. The infectious energy they inject Uncle Drew with helps viewers get invested, especially as the tournament revs up.
In terms of the supporting cast, Kroll is the definite standout as Mookie, an over-the-top villain moviegoers will love to hate. There’s no denying the part is a caricature dialed up to cartoonish levels, but Kroll still has some hilarious moments as he torments Dax. The women of Uncle Drew aren’t as lucky, as Tiffany Haddish’s Jess (save for a laugh or two) isn’t much more than a material woman who loves to rack up the credit card bills. The film also attempts to give Dax a new love interest in Erica Ash’s Mya, though there frankly isn’t much to that subplot to warrant its inclusion in the film. A shoehorned romance doesn’t really have a place in Uncle Drew, despite Stone’s best intentions.
Considering this movie stemmed from a soft drink commercial, Uncle Drew is much better than it has any right to be. Stone and his team deserve credit for finding a story (however clichéd) about the love of basketball and overcoming past mistakes. Nobody is going to regard Uncle Drew as the new gold standard for basketball movies, but NBA fans are going to have a blast watching it. For audiences who are looking for a break from the typical summer tentpole fare and want to see a breezy, feel-good comedy, Uncle Drew is a good choice.
Uncle Drew is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language, and brief nudity.
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