The breezy sports comedy “Uncle Drew” may be predictable: You know that the scrappy, senior citizen basketball players at its heart will triumph. But its NBA all-star cast – well hidden under layers of makeup – has a winning chemistry making them easy to root for.
The movie opens with an affectionate parody of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, focusing on a legendary 1970s street ball tournament at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park court, where many NBA players got their start. The hot team at that time was led by Uncle Drew (Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving), who could out-dunk his opponents with one hand while eating a ham sandwich with the other. The squad was headed for certain victory, but after fighting over a woman, the players scattered, never to grace the courts again.
Today, the Rucker tournament continues to be the dream of such basketball hopefuls as Dax (Lil Rel Howery). He’s invested his life savings to field a team, and nurses a childhood grudge against rival captain Mookie (an effectively villainous Nick Kroll). After Dax’s players abandon him to play for Mookie, the coach reluctantly recruits Drew, who gets his old team back together.
That septuagenarian squad includes vivid characters played by heavily disguised NBA legends including Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal and a nearly unrecognizable Chris Webber, who’s terrific as a flamboyant Baptist minister who deftly handles a soon-to-be-baptized infant like a basketball.
You know perfectly well who’s going to win the Rucker, but the pivotal games are sharply choreographed – appropriately enough, there’s even a dance-off, which makes this something of a hybrid of the later “Rocky” movies and the “Step Up” franchise, played out on the basketball court.
There’s the inevitable message about the game not being about the money – a bit disingenuous given that the Uncle Drew character originated as part of a series of viral ads for Pepsi. But despite the rampant product placement, this feels less like a slick commercial and more like hanging out with old friends who just happen to take a lot of Aleve.
Director Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) coaches these sometimes larger-than-life personalities into something like a real team. “Uncle Drew” isn’t just about winning: It’s about respect for your elders, and forgiveness – there’s even a gentle dig at Webber’s character that references a timeout he tried to call at a crucial moment in his college career. Like these flawed and broken players, maybe we, too, can move on from our mistakes.