Basketball and Comedy All-Stars Make a Winning Team in ‘Uncle Drew’

At first glance, a film centered around current and retired professional basketball players in old-age makeup may not seem like the best bet, especially when one of the said basketball players is none other than Shaquille O’Neal (remember “Kazaam”?). However, “Uncle Drew,” a sports comedy based on a series viral shorts produced by PepsiCo, exceeds expectations, thanks in no small part to strong comedic performances from Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll and a heartfelt screenplay from Jay Longino.

Howery, best known for his breakout role in “Get Out,” stars as Dax, a Harlem man whose sole comfort growing up in a orphanage was basketball. Despite his short height, Dax becomes something of a hot shot on the court, but his career came to a halt during a high school game after his winning shot is blocked by his rival, Mookie (Kroll). In present day, Dax works at Foot Locker and coaches a street ball team. With his star player, Casper (Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon), Dax hopes to see his Harlem Money to take top prize at the prestigious Rucker Classic tournament. However, this all changes in an instant when Mookie, a mentally-stunted goof stuck in the past, steals Casper and Dax’s whole team out from under him. Shortly after, his vapid girlfriend, Jess (Haddish), kicks him to the curb and becomes shower buddies with his rival.

After hearing about the mythical Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics), a b-ball legend who disappeared from the scene 50 years ago, from a talkative barber (J.B. Smoove), Dax finds the elusive man schooling a young punk on the court. Uncle Drew agrees to play for Dax on the condition that he pick his own team, whom he proceeds to round up on a road trip in his shagadelic van with Dax riding shotgun. This group of surprisingly spry old-timers include Preacher (former NBA All-Star Chris Webber), blind Lights (retired Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller), Boots (former NBA point guard Nate Robinson), and Big Fella (O’Neal). Preacher’s headstrong wife, Betty Lou (WNBA legend Lisa Leslie) also joins in on the fun. Rounding out the cast is Erica Ash as Maya, Boots’ saintly granddaughter who becomes Dax’s love interest.

“Uncle Drew” contains many of the tried and true cliches found in sports film. Drew becomes a mentor figure to Dax, whom he affectionately refers to as “Youngblood,” and there’s a lighthearted battle of old school versus new school, although the music of the Notorious B.I.G. is considered new school here. The heart of the film, however, are the respective redemptions of both Dax and Drew. While Dax must learn to let go of the mistakes he made on the court, Drew finds himself dealing with the ones he made off the court, particularly one major foul act that damaged his relationship with Big Fella.

While the basketball players impress here, not only on the court but on the dancefloor, the real MVPs here are Howery, Haddish and Kroll, whom director Charles Stone III wisely allowed to improv much of their dialogue. Stick around for the credits to be treated to some truly hilarious outtakes.

Uncle Drew” opens June 29 nationwide.