Uncle Drew’s trajectory is a bizarre one. The character, played by Kyrie Irving, debuted in 2012 in a series of viral videos promoting a zero-calorie soft drink called Pepsi Max. The spots featured the point guard, done up in old-man prosthetics, visiting streetball courts and schooling shocked opponents. At the time, Irving had just completed his rookie year with the LeBron James–less Cleveland Cavaliers. The popular commercials earned Irving the kind of national recognition that few athletes ever experience, let alone ones who play for teams as bad as the 2011–2012 Cavs.
A lot has happened since then. LeBron went back to Cleveland and won a championship with Irving, Irving eventually requested a trade away from LeBron, and Pepsi Max no longer exists in the United States (it’s sold as “Pepsi Zero Sugar” these days). Somehow, Uncle Drew survived, and Irving is now playing him in a feature-length film.
Uncle Drew the movie is by no means horrible, at least not as bad as you’d expect from something that is based on a cola commercial. It’s an enjoyable if somewhat plodding paint-by-numbers sports flick that, at times, acts as a surreal meta-examination of NBA stardom. It also happens to feature a shot of Shaquille O’Neal’s bare ass.
The plot of Uncle Drew is familiar stuff. Dax (played by Lil Rel Howery, fresh off his breakout role in last year’s Get Out), is a down-on-his-luck Foot Locker employee and basketball coach who has his team and girlfriend stolen from him by lifelong rival Mookie (Nick Kroll). Dax recruits Uncle Drew, a mysterious and legendary streetballer, and the two take a road trip to find his former teammates in order to defeat Mookie’s squad in the Rucker Classic (based on the real-life streetball tournament in Harlem).
Moral lessons are learned, though the film’s two major ones—“play the right way” and “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take”—are in direct opposition of each other. But that really isn’t the point. The point is to sell sneakers (a Nike logo is in seemingly every shot) and show NBA players in old-man makeup dunking on fools and breaking ankles, which is what makes the casting choices for Uncle Drew’s teammates so interesting.
No current NBA stars are members of Uncle Drew’s squad. Those parts went to Shaq, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson. They are a disparate bunch, both generationally and in terms of star power, and the only real connective tissue between them is the broadcast work Miller, O’Neal, and Webber do for TNT. (Robinson, the youngest of the group by more than a decade, is the odd man out in this regard.)
The stars who make up Uncle Drew’s team may not be dominating the current NBA, but they come in to add some much-needed personality when it becomes clear that Irving can’t do it alone. Shaq plays Big Fella, a meditating, dojo-owning martial arts instructor whose use of the words shit and ass, along with the aforementioned nudity, helped earn the film its PG-13 rating. Miller plays Lights, a legally blind former sharpshooter who lives in a retirement home with Robinson’s character, Boots. In an interesting creative decision, Boots has debilitating dementia, though the three-time NBA Slam Dunk Champion plays it almost completely straight. He is also in a wheelchair for most of the movie, and I’d like to know the reasoning behind this as Robinson’s most recognizable characteristic is being short.
Webber, meanwhile, is shockingly good as a preacher in the mold of Arsenio Hall’s Reverend Brown from Coming to America. The former Sacramento Kings star is legitimately funny, and his introductory scene in which he tries to baptize a newborn is the best moment of the film. I may sound crazy for saying this, but one of my biggest takeaways from Uncle Drew is that I want to see Chris Webber in more movies. And while I’m sounding crazy, I should also mention that there’s an extended dance-off scene and it is fantastic.
There are also some forced emotional moments, none of them more surreal than when Shaq and Irving’s characters have a heart-to-heart about their love triangle with the dearly departed Mrs. Big Man, a conversation that takes place at her gravesite. It’s the weirdest soda commercial I’ve ever watched.
Irving, meanwhile, is perfectly fine, even if he occasionally slips out of his gravelly old man voice. He is only tasked with carrying the scenes in which basketball is played because, of his on-screen teammates, he’s the only one who can still convincingly play like a pro. His middle-aged castmates may be playing elderly men for laughs, but when it comes to actually hooping, they were most effective in making me feel old as someone who grew up watching them. These are the situations where surrounding Irving with his NBA contemporaries would have helped, though you have to wonder if any of his peers would have signed on to take second billing and support Irving’s cinematic star turn.
The only current NBA player in Uncle Drew is the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon, and he plays a generic streetballer named Casper who betrays Dax and joins Mookie’s team. There’s an extended scrimmage scene with Gordon early in the movie, and it reminded me of moments from Curb Your Enthusiasm or Entourage when you aren’t quite sure whether or not a celebrity on-screen is playing himself or a character unique to that fictional universe. Gordon is at least at the right level of fame to be Casper Jones: Anyone more famous would run the risk of overshadowing Irving, while a less-recognizable player could have created an uncanny valley of sorts. (Is that Thaddeus Young? No, it can’t be. Can it?)
Uncle Drew the character may not be the most interesting part of Uncle Drew, but the fact that Kyrie Irving has his own movie is. Michael Jordan was the most famous athlete in the world when he starred in Space Jam. Irving, meanwhile, is a talented shoot-first point guard who, during production, found out that he had been traded to Boston. NBA players are famously obsessed with notions of hierarchy—Irving kvetched his way to the Celtics in order to get out of LeBron’s shadow, after all—and so structuring a feature film around someone like Irving is a delicate dance. If only the results were as consistently well-choreographed as that dance-off.