You know that feeling when you go to the megaplex, buy your ticket, then hit the concession stand to order a bucket of popcorn and a large soda, only to discover that they carry only Pepsi products? Stuck playing catch-up in the on-screen marketing game ever since Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures in 1982, Pepsi has been trying to get its hooks into the moviegoing experience for decades, and now, America’s runner-up soft-drink brand has found a strategy that goes beyond product placement, underwriting a big-screen version of its “Uncle Drew” viral short film phenom, in which NBA star Kyrie Irving dons “Dirty Grandpa”-style old-man makeup and punks a bunch of unsuspecting street ball players.
While it won’t increase your appetite for zero-calorie sugar water one bit (oddly enough, Nike gets far more prominent on-screen placement), this affectionate basketball-themed comedy from sports-savvy director Charles Stone III (“Mr. 3000”) comes across as an effective feature-length ad for the game itself. Whereas the central joke of the web series came in watching hotshots get schooled by Irving in disguise, screenwriter Jay Longino has the challenge of fleshing out Uncle Drew’s character and creating plenty of trash-talk opportunities for stand-up comics LilRel Howery, Nick Kroll, and Tiffany Haddish, brought on to boost the movie’s laugh factor. But there’s something wrong with the premise this time around, since we’re now asked to see the likes of Irving and NBA pals Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal as seniors, and to feign shock when, at the last moment, they turn out to have more tricks than the Harlem Globetrotters.
Front-loading its pro-sports cameos, the movie opens with a mock ESPN “30 for 30” episode dedicated to Uncle Drew — whose nickname made more sense when he showed up with nephew Kevin, posing as an out-of-shape oldster waxing nostalgic about how the game used to be played from the sidelines (in a time before all that “rappity hippity hop” music came along and ruined black culture). For some reason, a who’s who of A-list basketball stars now seem to remember his glory days, offering gushy endorsements of Drew’s game and describing his legendary exploits, such as the time he schooled the opposing team one-handed, playing with a ham sandwich clutched in the other.
It’s an amusing setup, offering sports fans the pleasure of trying to identify all the legends who are in on the joke — and yet, treating Drew as a lost superstar is the opposite approach of the web series. Building him up actively undermines the gag that his skills are a surprise (in the shorts, the crew would pretend to be following his nephew, then just so happen to film Irving as he started his hustle, shuffling out on the court and wildly missing his first few shots before suddenly getting good and showing everybody up).
Here, the main character is Howery’s Dax, a Harlem street ball coach who gave up on playing after missing the defining shot of his career years ago. His rival, a gum-smacking, “Macklemore-looking” twerp named Mookie (Kroll), blocked his shot back then and has stolen his glory every step of the way since. Kroll’s character doesn’t quite make sense, other than to humiliate Dax, which he now does by poaching his team (including Dax’s latest discovery, Casper, played by Orlando Magic power forward Aaron Gordon) and moving in on his girl (“Girls Trip” breakout Haddish, more shrill than hilarious this time around) — all of which seems exceptionally petty, considering that underdog Dax is a five-foot-six, Foot Locker-working orphan who can’t even pay his rent.
After Casper abandons him, Dax goes looking for Uncle Drew, who he finds showing up a bunch of “youngbloods” (get used to that word, as Drew drops it with broken-record regularity) on the playground in what amounts to a restaging of the web series’ first episode — less amusing when we have to believe that Irving is an actual septuagenarian. Drew agrees to play for Dax on one condition: that he can put together his own team. Technically, Drew intends to reassemble his old squad, taking his shag-carpeted conversion van out for a road trip in order to convince four players he let down decades earlier that they need to play again (sample jokes include such clichés as Dax not recognizing an eight-track player, and old people liking to drive with the heater on).
In Washington, D.C., Drew finds Preacher (Webber, sporting faux facial hair and a wig that makes him look like a blaxploitation version of Rev. Al Sharpton) in the midst of a baptism where the former athlete is about to dunk a prop baby the way he would have stuffed a basketball in his prime. Preacher’s wife (Lisa Leslie) doesn’t approve, setting up a lame chase. Next stop, they collect Lights (Miller), who’s all but blind, and wheelchair-bound Boots (Robinson, sporting a wild, Reggie Watts-style Afro) in their respective retirement homes before tracking down the guy with the grudge, massive Big Fella (O’Neal, who has the most acting experience of the bunch). Before they can play again, Drew has to apologize for making a move on Big Fella’s girl the night of the finals way back when, after which the movie shifts into an extended montage of these five NBA stars demonstrating that they’re not as feeble or frail as no one believed them to be in the first place.
None of it is particularly surprising, least of all the idea that Dax’s and Mookie’s teams will face off in the final game, when fourth-quarter injuries force both of them to suit up and jump in to settle their long-running score, while Haddish and Dax’s new love interest (Erica Ash) throw shade from the sidelines. But dang if it doesn’t rekindle your affection for basketball itself, demonstrating what really matters on the court — buckets, not money — the way Michael Jordan did in Nike’s classic “Failure” ad (“Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed”) or Kobe Bryant did in last year’s Oscar-winning “Dear Basketball” short. “Uncle Drew” may be tired, but it shows that one’s fundamental love for the game never gets old.