Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Uncle Drew Drops A Character From A Pepsi Commercial Into A Traditional Sports Movie

A movie based on a Pepsi commercial? Well, if Battleship could get a movie, I suppose anything is possible! Yes, Uncle Drew, directed by Charles Stone III, is based on a series of Pepsi commercials starring basketball star Kyrie Irving, adorned in old man makeup, getting into wacky antics as the elderly Uncle Drew. These commercials went viral a few years back and now they've spawned this theatrically released motion picture, one that has decided that, in order to make the character work in a longer narrative, he should be just one player (no pun intended) in a larger cast in a straightforward inspirational sports movie, a smart move that allows the marketable Uncle Drew to headline a feature film while minimizing the risk of the character overstaying his welcome.

Since Uncle Drew isn't the main character for the film, that means Dax (Lil Rel Howery) gets to be the protagonist. Dax, a shoe salesman and a basketball coach who grew up in a Foster home without a family, is going through a rough patch in his life as he finds his basketball team snatched away by longtime rival Mookie (Nick Kroll). Needing to find five players he can coach for the impending Rucker Classic tournament, he recruits the help of Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) and four other elderly fictional former basketball legends (played by Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal) to form an unlikely team that can help him score a big win and maybe also grow as a person.

This is a premise that could have easily worked as the plot of an inspirational sports movie Disney would have released in the 2000's hot of the success of Remember The Titans. Uncle Drew executes the premise in a sincere fashion that eschews even the slightest wink to the camera, which is actually one of the best qualities of Jay Longino's script. Choosing to forgo a "too-cool-for-school" attitude and instead embrace a traditional underdog sports movie narrative could have resulted in an all-too-familiar movie, but the absurdly comical presence of elderly basketball players in such a classical underdog sports story allows for just enough of an infusion of uniqueness for Uncle Drew to avoid becoming too rote.

The writing of Uncle Drew shows real cleverness in framing its story in such a pleasantly traditional and sweet manner, while the fact that Longino is able to pen cohesive individual characters arcs for both Dax and Uncle Drew is another nice feat found in his writing. There's a touch more substance to be found here in this project that totally feels like it could have just relied solely on relentlessly running the one-note joke of famous basketball players in old people makeup well into the ground and then some. Speaking of jokes, however, the scattershot comedy of Uncle Drew is one issue that really keeps it from being a cinematic slam-dunk (sorry, sorry, but you all knew that pun was coming eventually.)

Though certain gags, like two meta-references courtesy of Nick Kroll's character or some of the easygoing banter between Uncle Drew and his former teammates, manage to tickle your funny bone, too many of the jokes miss the mark simply by nature of relying too heavily on certain recurring gags that the movie just ends up milking too much. Dax being called a Hobbit (because he's short, get it?) isn't all that funny the first time and it being repeated so many times more afterward doesn't make it funnier, there's no Rake Effect happening here. Uncle Drew does have its share of laughs, but too often the jokes feel hackneyed and stand out as such compared to some of the more clever storytelling tactics it employs.

Meanwhile, the usually effective traditional narrative of the story manages to have its drawbacks in certain areas, namely in creating a thinly-sketched love interest role for Dax (played by Erica Ash) that has little to no personality of her own. Ash does what she can with what little she's given, while, in terms of acting in Uncle Drew, Lil Rel Howery provides an engaging anchor for the feature in his delightful performance. The various basketball stars playing Uncle Drew and his pals don't reveal themselves to be thespians in the making in their performances here but they work fine more often than not in the roles they've been given. The quality of acting seen here by these five basketball stars feels like a nice summation of the overall quality of Uncle Drew; not really all that impactful or memorable but agreeably diverting in the moment. It should be noted I know nothing about basketball (my doomed career in a Christian basketball team as a child scarred me from the sport), so maybe basketball fans will get a bigger kick out of Uncle Drew than I did.

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