A critic’s proverb: Expectations maketh the movie.
“Uncle Drew” is pretty good for being built off of a 2012 Pepsi ad campaign that nobody remembers. Back in the olden days of 2012, Kyrie Irving (of the Boston Celtics) first donned the old age makeup and was part of a Pepsi Max series of online shorts shot in a faux-documentary style and showing Irving’s Uncle Drew schooling young ballers on the game.
In the feature-length version, “Uncle Drew” tells the story of Dax, a former player and aspirational coach that has fallen on hard times after draining his savings into the chance to compete at The Rucker streetball tournament. Out of options and desperate for a chance to face his rival, Dax stumbles upon and enlists streetball legend Uncle Drew and his famed team.
The film stars actors and comedians Lil Rel Howery, Nick Kroll, and Tiffany Haddish. The real talent, however, lies in the team roster: Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics), Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers, Miami Heat, Cavaliers, Celtics), Chris Webber (Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings), Reggie Miller (Indiana Pacers), Nate Robinson (NY Knicks, Celtics, OKC Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls), and Lisa Leslie (LA Sparks and four-time Olympic gold medal winner). The movie is directed by Charles Stone III (“Drumline”).
When speaking of movies, as a critic, I try to employ two schools of thought. The first is judging a film as a whole piece. As something that can be good (or bad) based on structure, performance, and (above all) expectations. The higher the expectations of a movie, the harder it falls. And giants do fall.
This film is as sweet and wholesome as a cherry pie. It falls in the same vein of comedies as Tyler Perry’s Madea extended universe. Loud, funny, sometimes clumsy, and all wrapped up with a sweet, wholesome lesson.
My expectations for “Uncle Drew” were low. And that made this movie. The second camp is understanding that a film doesn’t have to be a piece of Academy Award-winning art. It doesn’t even have to be that good. It just has to be entertaining and offer a little bit of joy.
Both the original 2012 campaign and the feature-length version of “Uncle Drew” purport to be love letters to basketball and that absolutely shows. The love of the game and the importance of team camaraderie are central to the story. There’s that wholesome bow on top that I mentioned earlier.
In a film populated by athletes, it is a pleasure to watch them work. There is really impressive athleticism in this film. The scrimmages are among the most entertaining scenes and I could watch these guys play all day long. It’s the perfect use of the talent in the cast and is really cool to watch, while still driving the point home. I can dig it.
The absolute strongest point of “Uncle Drew” is the power of the ensemble. And I’m talking strictly about the team.
These ballplayers are dancing circles around their actor/comedian co-stars and steal the show in every possible scene. The performances are impressive, the comedy is on point, and the delivery is sincere. Shaq is a particular standout within a very strong group and is an absolute joy to watch. He has come a long way since “Kazaam.”
I wouldn’t be a critic if I didn’t offer some criticism. “Uncle Drew” is painfully predictable. It offers up no surprises, you see every turn in this film from a mile awa,y and the execution is straight out of the “wholesome comedy” instruction manual. “Uncle Drew” adds insult to injury by checking off every ridiculous trope (a dance off? Really?!). Is it still an entertaining film? Sure. It just doesn’t “wow.”
As I mentioned in my reflections on the ensemble, this movie would have been a whole lot better if we were just following the shenanigans of the team and left the actors out of it. Kroll and Haddish are absolutely grating and I wanted nothing to do with them. Not strong as comic relief and laughable as “villains.”
“Uncle Drew” is by no stretch of the imagination art, but it is a fun movie with some legitimate laughs and the kind of ooey-gooey sweetness that makes it a good rental for the next time you visit your parents.
You can catch “Uncle Drew” in theaters Friday, June 29.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.