UNCLE DREW Review: Nothing In The Rules Says A Commercial Can’t Play Basketball

A character designed to sell soda gets his own surprisingly decent movie.

Just to be upfront, I'm probably as far from the target audience for Uncle Drew as you can be. I'm not really a sports person, much less a fan of professional basketball, and I have no cultural connection to Harlem or street basketball. I entered Uncle Drew with little expectation, knowing that there were inevitably going to be references that would fly right over my head and that the film was going to need to win me over with its characters and jokes more than its premise or its NBA pedigree cast. And in that sense, I recognize that Uncle Drew is a solid film, well cast with funny performances and just enough of a plot to justify them. I just wish it had much more going on than the one joke it raises as a standard and leans on for its entire runtime.

For those unfamiliar with the Uncle Drew character, he originated from a series of Pepsi Max commercials where NBA player Kyrie Irving dons old man makeup and dunks on unsuspecting youngbloods, apparently calling on the power of Pepsi to be so youthfully lithe. To extend this light premise to feature length – thankfully with relatively minimal soda product placement – Uncle Drew decides to sextuple down on the gag, recruiting former players Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Lisa Leslie to don their own age-enhancing prosthetics so Uncle Drew can bid to reunite his old team to take on the Rucker Classic street tournament. The comic success of the film hinges on you finding the idea of these young-to-middle-aged players hilarious as caricatures of the elderly that have amazing basketball skills, so let that be the deciding factor of whether this is a film for you or not.

However, credit where credit is due, Uncle Drew has more going on plotwise than just watching faux geriatrics dunk for 100 minutes. Uncle Drew is less protagonist than zen master to struggling coach Dax (Lil Rel Howery), who has been abandoned by his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) for Dax's rival coach (Nick Kroll), leaving him homeless, penniless, and entirely dependent on Uncle Drew's instincts to deliver him from his personal woes. There's an interesting if undercooked idea in Dax's arc, that he's an orphan who is self-reliant to a fault who needs to learn to rely on others to find his personal happiness, but if Uncle Drew is ever put in a position of choosing emotional introspection or another old man joke, it almost always chooses the latter. There's an appreciated effort to give the film at least some semblance of plot structure under the improvisation, but it's not really enough to overcome the relative niche of the premise.

At least there are some pretty great comic performances to hold up the film, even if most of them aren't from the basketball team that is ostensibly the focus. Howery is an excellent comic straight man, which gives Haddish and Kroll a lot of room to ad lib in increasingly heightened ways. The surprise MVP, though, turns out to be Shaq of all people. As he says in the blooper reel, Shaq has "come a long way since Kazaam," finally figuring out that he doesn't need to do much to be funny except use his imposing figure with calculated silences and surprising bursts of movement. In a cast primarily composed of non-actors leaning on prosthetics to elevate their performances, Shaq feels like a comedy titan, in no small part because he's leaning so hard into his silly Shaq Fu persona to steal the show.

Still, Uncle Drew is a film that lives and dies on your interest in jokes about old people being able to move in ways that old people shouldn't be able to. It's a concept driven into the ground, hardly surprising considering the joke was developed to sell Pepsi in the space of about thirty seconds at a time. But for as shallow as that foundational premise is, there's a surprising amount of thought and heart put into making this the best version of that commercial gag as is possible. That's not exactly a slam dunk, but it's a good enough shot to make it past the rim.