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Why Uncle Drew looks to be a summer sleeper hit

The basketball comedy — based on a Pepsi commercial — overcomes your skepticism to win you over with its charm.

Kyrie Irving as “Uncle Drew”
It’s Uncle Drew, young blood.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Here’s a thing I wouldn’t have expected: Certain folks out there on film Twitter just can’t get enough of Uncle Drew, the new basketball comedy starring Lil Rel Howery and (too briefly) Tiffany Haddish.

(Okay, that last tweet is from Houston Rocket Chris Paul, not typically known for his hot film takes.)

But even beyond the limited realm of Twitter, Uncle Drew managed a surprisingly robust fourth-place opening at the box office, scoring over $15 million in the heart of the year’s most competitive movie release season. (The three movies that beat it are all sequels to prior successes: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Incredibles 2, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado). What’s more, the movie garnered a Cinemascore of A, which means those polled as they left the film almost universally loved it. (The only score higher is an A+.) A comedy with an A Cinemascore can typically expect to have very long legs. And it’s done all of this with a smaller promotional campaign than those much larger movies.

Now, you might be asking why anybody would be skeptical of Uncle Drew, a film that stars the very funny Howery and Haddish, to say nothing of a scene-stealing Nick Kroll. (I won’t say Kroll is Oscar-worthy in this film, but I also won’t not say it.) But skepticism is at least somewhat warranted when you consider that the titular Uncle Drew himself is played by Boston Celtic, five-time NBA All-Star, and flat Earth theorist Kyrie Irving, who might be a great basketball player but has to this point not proved himself to be a major box office draw, much less the sort of comedic genius who can give a funny performance through layers of makeup, as he has to in Uncle Drew, in which he plays an old man who is somehow also an amazing basketball player.

Oh, and then think about how much of the rest of the cast of the film consists of former NBA and WNBA greats — including Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Lisa Leslie, Nate Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal himself — also in old-age makeup. And after you’re done with that, you might be just a little skeptical of the fact that the movie is literally made by Pepsi, whose commercials first featured Uncle Drew.

But you know what? Uncle Drew is a lot of fun, the storytelling is rock solid, and if this were somehow a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Irving, we’d all be saying, “Wow, he’s a lot better than most athletes they get on this show!”

Uncle Drew’s release was strategically targeted for this exact moment

Uncle Drew
Look at all of these basketball greats in old-age makeup!

Some of the skepticism about Uncle Drew is definitely warranted. Athletes don’t have a long track record of great comedic turns. (The best is probably O.J. Simpson in The Naked Gun movies, and I’m not going to work too hard to defend O.J.’s comedic gifts beyond this sentence.) And corporations have an even lousier track record of producing great cinema, lest we forget the stain on cinematic history that was Mac and Me. And if Uncle Drew has a single primary fault, it’s the huge over-reliance on product placement, with Pepsi machines lurking in the background of shots like a horror movie villain. These are rarely auspicious signs for a movie.

But look beneath the hood of Uncle Drew, and the fact that it’s a charming little sports comedy shouldn’t be surprising. Howery, especially, has been waiting for a breakout role like this after hilarious supporting turns in Get Out and TV’s The Carmichael Show (in which his ex was also played by Haddish), and Uncle Drew suggests that, yeah, he’s great at garnering laughs, but he can also sell some of the more emotional moments needed by the lead of a big studio comedy. His character, would-be champion basketball coach Dax, grew up in foster care, and the movie only brings this up when it needs Howery to look sad, but danged if he doesn’t sell that sadness every time.

Beyond Howery, the cast is stocked with comedic scene stealers who pop up for a few minutes apiece, the better to always keep the momentum rolling. Kroll, especially, is hilarious as a d-bag rival to Dax who’s super-invested not just in reliving Dax’s formative childhood traumas but also propping up the movie’s product placement. (Self-aware product placement is a very old way to get viewers to laugh at how everything is advertising now while still turning everything into advertising, but sue me, I laughed.)

As if that weren’t enough, Uncle Drew boasts both an underexplored premise for a sports movie — the Rucker Classic, an annual basketball tournament featuring all levels of players, played on a New York playground court — and a sneakily perfect director in Charles Stone III, who made the excellent 2002 college marching band movie Drumline (itself a bit of a sports movie) and the very funny 2004 Bernie Mac vehicle Mr. 3000, which is similar to this movie in its central idea of an aging athlete returning to the game he left behind long ago. (Stone hasn’t made a big-screen feature since Mr. 3000, but that almost certainly has to do with how the particular niche Stone works in has dried up, at least when Pepsi’s not writing the checks.)

But I would argue that even one of the things that makes the movie seem like a risk — the fact that fully six of its major characters are played by professional basketball players — is a secret strength. While Irving has only played Uncle Drew in the Pepsi commercials, it’s at least a character he knows, and O’Neal has frequently been funny in guest spots in comedies. (The less said about the movies built around him, the better.) I might even argue that the star-centric approach of the NBA, in which having just five players in a starting lineup means having bigger personalities than in baseball or football, lends itself more readily to the charismatic performers who might otherwise have tried to become actors in another life.

The release of Uncle Drew also seems specifically timed to this particular moment. Its June 29 release date is two weeks after the last major studio comedy (Tag) and just over two weeks after the last major studio movie with a black lead (Superfly). What’s more, both Tag and Superfly struggled at the box office because they opened opposite Incredibles 2, one of the summer’s biggest behemoths. Uncle Drew really only had Sicario 2 for its opening weekend competition. (It’s also worth noting both Tag and Superfly pulled B+ Cinemascores — not bad but also not an A.)

But the timing is interesting in another way, namely that the NBA season just wrapped up in early June, with the Golden State Warriors winning their second consecutive title over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving’s Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Cavs narrowly beat them, while O’Neal was one of TNT’s in-studio commentators for much of the playoffs. If you’re a basketball fan looking for something basketball-related to consume while you wait until the next NBA season launches in the late fall, well, there are far worse options than Uncle Drew, which is, after all, based on commercials that aired in conjunction with basketball games.

And Uncle Drew is packed with jokes that NBA fans will most appreciate, from a callback to Webber’s famous time-out call in the NCAA finals (a freshman at University of Michigan, Webber called for a time-out when his team had none remaining) to O’Neal grumbling about Kobe Bryant. These aren’t such hyper-obscure references that they’ll turn off non-NBA fans — I, a strictly casual fan, picked up on almost all of them — but they definitely increase the sense of Uncle Drew being an offseason treat for fans.

All of these factors combine to make Uncle Drew an enjoyable summer time-waster, the sort of movie you enjoy for the air conditioning as much as anything else. But to get why Uncle Drew rises beyond that level, we have to go deeper.

Uncle Drew is riddled with clichés, but it celebrates authenticity so sincerely you might not mind

My mention of Saturday Night Live above explains a lot of how I consumed Uncle Drew. I had a good time with it, to be sure, but it also felt frequently like I was watching a spinoff movie for an SNL standby character I had just forgotten the existence of. (I suppose that makes sense, given Uncle Drew’s origins in commercials.) At its worst, the movie feels like a cross-pollination of a film like that with Field of Dreams and Space Jam.

At its core, Uncle Drew is a celebration of authenticity, namely the sense that things were better “back in the day.” Uncle Drew, after all, is a codger who can somehow school younger kids (whom he dismissively refers to as “young blood”) out on the playground courts. He and his pals could have dominated the Rucker back in the ’60s, but they had a falling out, one that the movie barely explains and then patches up in incredibly perfunctory fashion.

But there’s something sweet to the film’s notions of authenticity, a sincere belief in things like teamwork conquering all and needing to set aside ego to accomplish anything. The film overloads Dax with arcs — he needs to find a family; he needs to learn to overcome his fears; he needs to learn to stop relying on stars and embrace the whole team — but it always comes back to the idea that finding Uncle Drew gives him a center in his life, that he was overcompensating for his childhood by trying to be great, when he really just needed to be good.

Yes, this is nestled amid a bunch of jokes about how old men smell funny and like to turn the heat up really high in their cars. But just enough of these jokes are funny and just enough of the movie’s heart is in the right place that it all comes together. You’ll see the film’s dramatic climax coming from a mile away when you learn the specifics of Dax’s worst childhood memory, but isn’t that part of the joy of sports movies? We know that the underdogs will triumph at the last minute, because they have the right ideals. It’s almost beside the point how they do so.

Even the movie’s central focus on street ball, rather than a college or professional league, celebrates authenticity. Strip away all of the theatrics of professional sports, and the best players have to love the game on some level. Uncle Drew conflates that idea with something almost mythic, a blacktop legend who walked away from the game because it stopped being as pure as he hoped it would be, and it briefly flirts with the idea that Drew can’t handle the way the Rucker has become commercialized (though I missed the resolution of this plot point because — and I mean this literally — I paused to take a sip of water).

It’s, of course, really weird to have a movie that abjures superstardom in favor of teamwork that then stars a bunch of genuine basketball superstars, just as it’s bizarre to have a movie obsessed with authenticity and doing things for the love of the game that was made, in part, by a gigantic soda corporation. You might not be able to get past those inherent contradictions at the heart of Uncle Drew, and that’s fine.

Yet even as I saw how those contradictions threatened to swallow Uncle Drew whole, I couldn’t help but admire the way it simultaneously told easy jokes and avoided making them too easy. Haddish’s character, Jess, for instance, is a shopaholic who can’t stop spending too much money and can’t wait for Dax to get the big check from winning the Rucker — but we soon learn she’s successful and paying all of his bills, so the money she’s theoretically wasting is her own. The same goes for Drew and his pals, who are very much stereotypical old men in a movie (possessed of sage wisdom, crotchety, prone to doing ridiculous things, etc.) but also not perfect. Drew himself needs to learn a lesson about humility and asking for forgiveness. He does so in about five seconds, of course, but it’s there.

Ultimately, I think my pal Charles Bramesco is onto something when he compares this movie to a kung fu flick. Those films, after all, are often about warriors in search of a better fighting style, which often involves returning to the roots of their art.

There is a growing sense, in 2018, that we have lost something in the nearby past, and if we just went looking in the right place, we might find it again. But, then, humans have felt that way for as long as we’ve had records of them grumbling about how young kids just don’t understand the way things are supposed to be. Uncle Drew embraces at least some of the contradictions in the idea that the kids we were will inevitably age into the old folks who just didn’t get us, and it laces those ideas with some solid jokes and a wistful story. What’s not to love?

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