By: Graeme Howard
Considering the fact that Uncle Drew originated as a Pepsi advertisement campaign, it is surprising that the film is not a complete and utter train wreck. Instead viewers are treated to a passable film that will appeal to NBA fans. However the abundance of product placements and issues with pacing lead to a largely by-the-book film that misses more than it dunks.
The story of Uncle Drew revolves around Dax (Lil Rel Howery) – a basketball coach by day, footlocker employee by night. He is a lifelong basketball fan who thinks he lost his chance at playing when he suffered a humiliating defeat from his rival (Nick Kroll) when he was a kid. Dax has a number of setbacks that essentially are used to introduce him to Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving). From this point on, Dax helps Uncle Drew to get his old team back together (played by former NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Chris Webber) so that they can compete in the Rucker Classic in Harlem.
Uncle Drew feels more like a road trip film with the basketball as more of an afterthought. Director Charles Stone III (Drumline) chooses to display most of the actual basketball games in a truncated fashion which keeps the film moving at a steady pace. However, he focuses a bit too much on the subplot around Kyrie and Shaq’s characters involving a past love they both had for the same girl. This subplot was underdeveloped, and felt forced rather than touching. It’s unfortunate that Uncle Drew likes to focus more on these supposedly “touching” moments because a lot of the real emotion from the film is found when the cast is on the court (with the exception of a rather funny choreographed dance scene at a nightclub).
The banter/rapport between these friends is convincing—because they actually have known each other in the NBA for over a decade. When on the court, Kyrie Irving’s talented dribbling skills are showcased, but it often feels like the other former stars do not all get their own time to shine. I suppose that’s not much of a surprise since Uncle Drew is the main star of the show, but it just feels like this cast could have been better utilized.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the staggering amount of product placement found in this film. Now this may sound nitpicky being that this is a film that was produced by Pepsi, but it is egregious at how many times the film name drops, or flat out displays, the exact same three products. The funny thing is Uncle Drew does a better job advertising Aleve than it does Pepsi. It would be acceptable if the advertisements stayed on the basketball court because at least that makes narrative sense. But when the film stoops as low as to having Shaq flipping through channels on a TV only to show commercials of Pepsi, Aleve, and Enterprise, or have Nick Kroll plug the exact same sponsors while doing an interview, it can be a bit much.
There are admittedly some laugh-out-loud moments, but the lack of actual basketball, the excessive use of product placement, and some pacing issues make this film a passable albeit slow experience. NBA fans will enjoy Uncle Drew, along with all the in-jokes and cameos the film provides. It’s tough to recommend seeing this on the big screen for anyone else.