Kyrie Irving, Chris Webber, and other NBA greats make “Uncle Drew” an entertaining comedy

By Steve Pulaski

I suppose given how dangerously close a feature-length adaptation of a recurring soda commercial is to demonstrating the worst of consumerism and product placement run wild, the witty, effortlessly likable Uncle Drew seems more like a major-minor miracle. Brimful with personality thanks to an exuberant cast of NBA All-Stars and a welcomed authenticity beneath its sugary origins, this is splendid fare amidst a hot summer. Especially with the NBA offseason currently underway, the film proves there really might not be a bad time to “get buckets.”

The titular character is played by current Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, reprising his role from the aforementioned commercials. He’s an ostensibly crusty former basketball player who still makes a habit of showing “youngbloods” the way the washed away old-timers used to do things. On the coveted streetball court known as “Ruckers,” Uncle Drew is called out of retirement by local coach Dax (Get Out‘s Lil Rel Howery), who has mortgaged both his future and current relationship with Tiffany Haddish on a chance to make it to the Rucker Classic finals with a promising young star. Dax’s team quits on him in favor of the diminutive Mookie (Nick Kroll), and he desperately needs Drew in order to compete. Drew begrudgingly agrees, but insists on taking a road trip in his dusty van to pick up his former players. These codgerly Avengers assemble when the God-fearing Preacher (“Fab Five” Chris Webber), blind-as-a-bat Lights (former Pacer Reggie Miller), wheelchair-bound Boots (former Knick Nate Robinson), and big-man-turned-karate-master Big Fella (former Laker Shaquille O’Neal, though he of everyone needs no introduction) all come on-board the rickety bus and set course back to New York to prove they still got what it takes to rack up W’s.

Similar to this month’s Action Point, which may not be a ringing endorsement for some, the film presents a distinct generational gap. This one between the principled and stylish old-folks in contrast to the flashy freshman class that has given us showy talent (ala many players on the dynastic Golden State Warriors). Moreover, Uncle Drew is a treat for basketball fans, who will appreciate subtle in-jokes directed at Shaq’s piss-poor free-throw shooting and Chris Webber’s timeout gaff. Even the storyline itself, which spends a sizable amount of time illustrating the beef between Drew and Big Fella, recalls the contentious relationship of Shaq and Kobe Bryant during their incredible run with the Los Angeles Lakers (Drew himself is often a ball-hog, not to mention a loner while Big Fella is much looser).

Adding to the laundry list of deals that add up to a greater, satisfying whole, the makeup here is, dare I say, Oscar-worthy? Not since Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa has aging actors looked so convincing as the cast of eccentrics look every bit as geriatric. On top of looking elderly and the best of the bunch, Kyrie is also a pretty solid performer. Perhaps in an increasingly ostentatious NBA, like LeBron James in Trainwreck, this generation’s marquee stars find their footing in cinema more easily. With that, Webber, who looks like your local, inner-city pastor, is effective as a proselytizing force with whom God wouldn’t reckon on the basketball court, and Reggie Miller has some scene-stealing moments as an incapacitated grandfather to Maya (Erica Ash). Finally, one can’t deny the fierce presence of WNBA Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie either, who is the equivalent of a walk-on as her Betty Lou character’s overprotectiveness towards her minister husband works for the Harlem Buckets in bold ways.

Anyone even giving Uncle Drew‘s plot description and theatrical poster a second look at the local multiplex this weekend knows they’re not in for high art, let alone any kind of potentially game-changing comedy like Game Night. But Uncle Drew, like a seasoned streetballer, knows it’s working with a full deck of high energy performers, and director Charles Stone III (Drumline) once again proves he can direct a fantastic display of high energy sequences (with a resume including intense drum competitions, major league baseball games, and now streetball finals). Uncle Drew is a decisive, confident mix of old school attitude and contemporary basketball panache; both work to provide this summer with a solid mainstream surprise.

Grade: B