Uncle Drew is a movie that shouldn’t be as good as it is. The movie is based on, of all things, a Pepsi commercial starring a basketball player. In 2015 Pepsi hired then Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving to star in a series of commercials. The concept for the campaign was to have Irving dress as an old man and get into pickup games in the park where his overwhelming, real life skills would act as a prank on the cocky streetball players.
The commercials were clever and Irving carried a natural charisma behind all the makeup that sold the concept. That said, that’s pretty much where this story should have ended. The commercial campaign lasted about a year and slowly faded away. Somehow however, someone got inspired. Whether it was the success of Johnny Knoxville’s similarly conceived Bad Grandpa, a film about Knoxville pranking people in old man makeup which earned $151 million dollars on a $15 million dollar budget, or Irving’s plucky charisma, someone got it in their head that Uncle Drew, Irving’s character, would make a good movie.
Uncle Drew tells the story of a basketball legend on the streets of New York in the 1960’s, who simply vanished after his equally legendary streetball team no-showed the finals of the biggest streetball tournament in New York, The Rucker. Decades later, the legend of Uncle Drew lingers as the latest iteration of The Rucker tournament is about to get underway. Dax (Lil Rel Howery, the scene stealer from Get Out), needs Uncle Drew’s help.
Dax has just lost his entire team to his rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll). Dax has already paid the $10,000 fee to get into the tournament and can’t get his money back. The only solution is to get a team together and when he sees Uncle Drew schooling young players on a random streetball court, Dax enlists the legend to be on his team at The Rucker. Drew agrees but only if he can get together his old team including his former best friend turned enemy, Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).
It’s a fairly conventional plot from here as Dax and Uncle Drew begin road-tripping to get Drew’s old teammates including Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson) and Big Fella. We’ve seen putting the team together montages before but there is something so strange and endearing about this one. Each player is given a tiny story arc to riff on and each is rather surprisingly delightful.
Webber especially has a great deal of fun playing Preacher as a henpecked husband to Betty Lou, played by Women’s Basketball legend Lisa Leslie. The dynamic between Webber and Leslie is basically lifted from the Aretha Franklin subplot from The Blue Brothers but instead of a brassy R & B number, Leslie throws on her basketball shoes and gets in the game. It’s an ancient anti-feminist running gag about a nagging wife that pays off with a surprisingly progressive and clever twist.
Miller and Robinson have lesser notes to play but Miller’s infectious energy is downright adorable while Robinson’s character has genuine pathos. When we meet Boots he’s in a wheelchair and seemingly in the throes of a serious medical condition that renders him speechless. He’s cared for by his granddaughter, played by Erica Ash, who is quite transparently in the film as a love interest for Dax. As the road trip goes on, Boots works his way from a wheelchair to a running, jumping, slam dunk, it’s hard not to smile at the cheesy, empowering never give up message.
In some sort of strange pop culture convergence, Uncle Drew shares the same ethos as the recent comedy Tag: You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing. It’s a riff on a line from the legendary George Bernard Shaw who appears to be having a minor pop renaissance, even though Tag intentionally gives his famous quote to Benjamin Franklin. It’s a good line, and a great idea to hang a movie on as both films demonstrate.
I am almost embarrassed about how much I enjoyed Uncle Drew. Yes, the movie is clumsy at times and unbearably derivative at other times. It’s a movie that includes a gathering the team montage and a dance-off sequence. And, it’s based off a character from a Pepsi commercial. By all accounts I should abhor Uncle Drew and yet I don’t. The film is fun, far more fun than some movies with fully original characters and stories.
Uncle Drew has a big goofy heart and a genuine love of sport that somehow won over my curmudgeonly soul. It’s just so darn fun and positive that I could not resist it and neither will you if you give Uncle Drew a chance.