Movie Review: ‘UNCLE DREW’ catches you off guard with its light-hearted fun

Jared McMillan // Film Critic

UNCLE DREW

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.
Director: Charles Stone III
Starring: Kyrie IrvingLil Rel HoweryShaquille O’NealChris WebberReggie MillerNate RobinsonLisa LeslieErica AshTiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll

Back in 2012, Pepsi wanted an athlete to help promote their new Pepsi Max drink, and wound up striking gold. Kyrie Irving, fresh off his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, began a campaign that would have him market in disguise, an old-timer from the blacktop named Uncle Drew. The premise was to have a nephew named Kevin playing a pick-up game. His teammate would get injured and Uncle Drew would sub in from the stands, where an “old man” would light everyone up, the crowd sipping Pepsi Max in the stands as they watched in awe.
The campaign was a huge success, spawning a few more ads that had cameos from NBA players to play up the myth of Uncle Drew. It also gave Kyrie Irving a new mainstream exposure. Fast-forward to 2018, and Irving is a five-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion, and one of the top players in the league. Now is as good a time as any to reinvest in a character that brought him notoriety, this time in the full-length comedy UNCLE DREW.

To build more backstory, the movie opens with a faux 30 FOR 30 about Uncle Drew and his dominant Rucker Park squad, Them Buckets. They were primed to take over, but they mysteriously didn’t show for the ’68 Finals in the Rucker Park Classic, and no one heard from them again. Fifty years later, Uncle Drew is nothing but a myth or a legend, depending on who you ask. That’s when the audience is introduced to Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a smooth-talking coach for a team that’s competing in the Classic, when his star player, Casper (Orlando Magic power forward Aaron Gordon), gets stolen away by his nemesis Mookie (Nick Kroll).

Lil Rel Howery, left, and Kyrie Irving star in ‘UNCLE DREW.’ Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Dax’s plans are ruined, leading to his gold-digging girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) kicking him out of the apartment. He scours New York trying to get together a new team, only to get rejected via montage. Then, in Deus Ex Machina fashion, he stumbles on a pickup game to see none other than Uncle Drew schooling these younger folk, or “youngbloods” as he calls them. Desperate, Dax convinces Uncle Drew to get back to the Rucker and compete to teach the youngbloods a lesson. This leads to a road trip to get Them Buckets back together for one more game, calling on Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).

UNCLE DREW plays to its strengths by putting them in formats to help keep the story moving forward, using various devices that evoke comfort. The 1st Act is to establish the relationship of Dax and Drew, the 2nd Act is a road trip movie, and the 3rd Act delivers the sports action. However, there are elements of THE BLUES BROTHERS, like Dax’s orphanage background, getting “the band” back together, and a psychotic loved one chasing them. There’s also a meet-cute for Dax in the form of Boots’ granddaughter, Maya (Erica Ash).
Since they are saving most of the basketball for when they get to Rucker Park, director Charles Stone III (DRUMLINE) keeps the energy high with a bright color palette and letting the cast ham it up. Even though the NBA players are in great makeup, there is still something pleasing about seeing them inject a sense of eternal youth into the characters. Throw in Dax’s exuberance in bantering with the old-timers and you have a solid warm-up for the main event at Rucker. The rush to get there ultimately hampers the movie, as it creates a lot of pacing issues and quick edits that throw off the flow of the story.

But UNCLE DREW isn’t trying to be the greatest movie in the world. Its main purpose is to entertain and do so by staying out of the way of itself, such as making Dax the main character rather than Uncle Drew, which would have gotten stale. Also, for a movie backed by Pepsi, there is hardly any product placement save for a few pairs of shoes, and that gets everyone more invested. UNCLE DREW is exactly what it needs to be: light-hearted fun, solid basketball sequences to highlight the NBA-heavy cast, and an underdog mentality. Go get them popcorn buckets and have a good time at the movies.

Grade: B-

UNCLE DREW opens nationwide today.

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