Kyrie Irving’s alter ego, Uncle Drew, hits the big screen this June. The film arrives in theaters as summer blockbuster season is in full swing, suggesting Lions Gate has faith in the big-screen debut for the Celtics guard.
The June 29 premier is no accident, either. The NBA Finals will have just ended, and you can anticipate a heavy marketing blitz for Uncle Drew akin to the LeBron James co-starred Trainwreck in 2015. The film’s NBA-reliant campaign begins in earnest, with the first trailer popping up online just days prior to All-Star Weekend.
The trailer’s promising. It features enough humor and jokes true basketball fans will appreciate that I’m not ready to dismiss the film upfront. However, I don’t put too much stock in trailers alone — especially for comedies, which can pack every good gag into a 90-second spot. So let’s breakdown the positives and negatives to be gleaned from what we know of Uncle Drew.
POSITIVE: Hollywood has not produced a wide-released basketball film in a long while
I enjoy a good sports-centric film, particularly when it features an original storyline. Biopics can be great, but are often too paint-by-numbers and usually fudge too many critical facts.
That’s why I enjoy He Got Game — which, like Uncle Drew, starred a young NBA’er in his first role — more than I enjoyed Glory Road.
Sports can be mined for excellent material, and it’s been awhile since filmmakers have done so adeptly.
NEGATIVE: Basketball comedies don’t have the best track records
Perhaps one explanation for the dearth of quality basketball films in recent years is that the attempts leading up to the current drought were awful. It’s been a decade since Semi-Pro, the dreadful Will Ferrell vehicle that whiffed on the fertile ground of ABA lampooning.
In the 12 years before Semi-Pro, studios attempted to capitalize on basketball’s popularity with such titles as Celtic Pride, The 6th Man, Eddie and Juwanna Mann. More than a quarter-century’s passed since the last genuinely good basketball-based comedy, 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump. Uncle Drew is trying to snap a skid almost as embarrassing as the Phoenix Suns’ current playoff drought.
NEGATIVE: Commercials-turned-bigger projects are often terrible
Wayne’s World and its sequel are arguably the only worthwhile film adaptations of a Saturday Night Live skit. The reason? Stretching the premise behind a three-minute television skit into a feature-length film takes extraordinary skill. Now shorten the allotted time to 30 seconds. There’s your explanation for why beloved cinematic comedies don’t spawn from popular commercials.
The Uncle Drew character debuted as an advertisement for Pepsi. Hilarious as the spot was, the movie attempts to extend the joke into a 90-minute premise. For some context on how difficult that really is, I have one word for you: Cavemen.
POSITIVE: Nick Kroll co-stars!
Nick Kroll co-stars in Uncle Drew as an antagonist. Kroll’s an excellent casting choice not just because he plays a hilarious, over-the-top character with supreme skill, but some of his best work is tied directly to basketball. Shane Mettlen spotlighted some of Kroll’s best sports skits last year here on The Open Man, including this parody of Larry Bird.
NEGATIVE: Nick Kroll was in Cavemen
POSITIVE: The trailer has great basketball material
Among the myriad problems the assorted failed basketball comedies have faced is that the writing suggests an ignorance to the central subject matter. Bad basketball or lame references in a title featuring the sport as a central plot point immediately kills the vibe. For example, while not a comedy, Leo’s horrific game in The Basketball Diaries instantly damages the movie’s cred.
With a cast of former (and in Kyrie’s case, current) ballers, the trailer depicts genuine competence for the game. Rucker Park as a plot point is a nice touch, not only as homage to one of the game’s hollowed grounds, but because it’s already worked in a quality basketball movie once before: Above The Rim.
NEGATIVE: There might be *too much* basketball material
Filmmakers walk a fine line in depicting genuine understanding for sport while not oversaturating their work. Uncle Drew featuring a cast of legitimate ball players provides fodder for basketball fans — i.e., a Shaq free throw crack and Chris Webber spinning a baby behind his back, a la his 1994 dunk over Charles Barkley — but such material is only good for one gag. Otherwise, it’s overkill.
The actors need to be able to…well, act. And among the cast of hoopers, the most seasoned actor is Shaquille O’Neal, star of such “classics” as Steel and Kazaam.
A full verdict on Uncle Drew can’t be rendered until June, though an NBA Playoffs filled with advertisements for the film might wear out audiences before its debut. But hey, if the Celtics do indeed reach the Finals, at least NBA conspiracy theorists have material.
We’ll probably have more evidence for the NBA pushing Uncle Drew than we do for a flat Earth.