Cute and cuddly as a Shaq Bear, and about as competitive as the past couple of NBA seasons have been, “Uncle Drew” is a kid-friendly b-ball fantasy, “Space Jam” without the space or the Looney Tunes.
It’s a feature-length comedy built around those Kyrie Irving-in-old-man-disguise Pepsi commercials from a while back, basically a film of him and a bunch of NBA retirees in old-age makeup, hustling “Young Bloods” at New York street ball.
But it hangs on the comic straight-man stylings of Lil Rel Howery, “coach” of this geezer hoops team. And Lil Rel, ridiculed as “Hobbit” and “Tiny Tim” by one and all, is basically Kevin Hart lite (only plump), Cedric the Rarely Entertaining.
Howery plays Dax, a Footlocker salesman whose hoop dreams ended in middle school, a game-winning shot blocked by is lifelong nemesis (Nick Kroll). Now he’s gambled everything he has on team he’s pulled together for the world famous $100,000 Rucker Playground outdoor tourney in New York, only to have Mookie, “the ghost of white boy past” show up and steal that from him, too.
Mookie even steals his gold-digging girl, Jess (Tiffany Haddish, of course).
Now, Dax’s last hope may involve listening to the geezers in the barbershop (J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps). He needs to track down the man of myth, the baller of legend, Uncle Drew (Irving). He had mad game back in the ’60s, but dissension broke up his crew back then. Can he and his 70something teammates still play?
Only a road trip in Drew’s 1970s vintage Love Wagon (van) to reassemble that team will tell.
The Big Man (Shaquille O’Neal) is running a Deep South martial arts dojo and looks “like Wolverine’s granddad.”
“Pass the ball, Kobe.”
“That sucker punch is the only ‘free throw’ you ever made.”
Shooting guard “Lights” (Reggie Miller) is blind.
“Legally? Or actually?”
Boots (Nate Robinson) is catatonic and in a wheelchair, until the ball is passed his way. And Preacher (Chris Webber) is serving his flock in “Chocolate City” (D.C.) and about to dunk — literally — a baby he is christening when we meet him. His wife (Lisa Leslie of the WNBA) doesn’t approve and chases the van all up and down the Eastern seaboard to rein Preacher in.
We’re set up for a “Blue Brothers” style odyssey, with every player getting the chance to show what they can do, off the court, on the court and on the dance floor. The Old School dance-off is a hoot, but the many, many dead spots deflate that idea, and the endless short guy/old guy/trash talk-pep talks don’t compensate for wit or pace, all this stuff about “playing the game the way it was meant to be played,” and the only shot you never miss is the one you never take, “mistake that defines your life” lessons.
Believe it or not, they lean hard on the same mantra “Tag” did — “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.”
Erica Ash plays the doting granddaughter/Dax love interest, ESPN takes a co-starring role as this tale is set up by a “30 for 30” documentary and the network’s last “star” pops up, here and there.
And we all wait and wait and josh around with prostate jokes and heart-attacks until “the big game.” If it wasn’t for Webber, given the funniest part to play (over the top pastor) and playing it to the hilt, the dead spots and blase leading man would dull this to the point of distraction.
Howery is funniest in the outtakes over the closing credits, breaking up at what everybody else is doing.
But if nothing else, Irving & Co., with some sympathetic filming and editing, make a great case that basketball, not soccer, can be the world’s “beautiful game,” even if you can’t really play at this level past, oh, 38.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for suggestive material, language and brief nudity
Cast: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Erica Ash, Nate Robinson, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll
Credits:Directed by Charles Stone III, script by Jay Longino. A Summit release.
Running time: 1:43