I was deeply, deeply skeptical of the Uncle Drew movie. I failed to see any way that the viral Pepsi ads that starred Kyrie Irving disguised as an old man who dominated pickup basketball games could be adapted into a feature-length film. The primary gag of the ads was the (potentially unscripted) surprise on the faces of Irving’s opponents as they learned that this old man was incredible at basketball, and it wore thin by the fourth or fifth installment in the campaign. Movies are, uh, scripted, and about 15 times longer than the longest Uncle Drew ad.
But I was surprised to find the movie, out Friday, is modestly entertaining—primarily because it puts the vast majority of the acting work in the hands of professional comedians instead of Irving’s. It might be called Uncle Drew, but Uncle Drew does not appear until about 15 minutes in, as the movie establishes its key plot points before any basketball players pretending to be old people show up. Lil Rel Howery, Nick Kroll, and Tiffany Haddish take on most of the responsibility of making Uncle Drew funny and like a real-life movie, even as much of the budget was clearly devoted to the prosthetic makeup that helps NBA and WNBA players look like they’re 70 years old.
Lil Rel carries this movie like LeBron James carried the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Just as LeBron did everything in his power to make players who probably didn’t belong in the Finals look competent on the court, Howery works his ass off to make scenes featuring people who likely don’t belong in movies funny enough to be shown to a ticket-buying public. The major plotline and almost every scene revolve around Lil Rel’s character, who realizes that he needs to recruit Drew and his fellow olds to win a basketball tournament at Rucker Park.
Chances are a movie about Lil Rel’s street basketball team wouldn’t be appealing unless all of these high-profile players were in it. So which of them does the best job? I ranked every current and former basketball player in the movie based on their performance.
1. Dikembe Mutombo
Technically, Dikembe isn’t acting in the movie; he’s one of several retired players, including Steve Nash, Jerry West, and Bill Walton, featured in a fake 30 for 30 documentary that lays out Uncle Drew’s backstory. Any time we get to hear Dikembe Mutombo talk is a blessing. It goes unexplained why Mutombo is so knowledgeable about the career of a New York City streetballer who disappeared after an amateur tournament in 1968, when Mutombo was a 2-year-old baby in Congo. (Also unexplained in the faux-documentary: why Uncle Drew received the nickname “Uncle Drew” in 1968, when he looked like a young person and not like Kyrie Irving in a wig.) I’m willing to look past it.
2. Chris Webber
Webber is the only NBA personality in Uncle Drew who took me more than 0.1 seconds to identify. He plays a character who goes by Preacher, who gave up basketball to become a preacher. Webber did such a good job preaching that for a brief moment I thought he was a real actor filling a role that would introduce us to an NBA star. Impressive!
Furthermore, Webber participates in a joke that makes fun of how his character doesn’t know how many timeouts his team has. This, despite Webber mostly refusing to talk about his infamous timeout incident at Michigan. Acting is about allowing yourself to inhabit another human’s persona; clearly Webber did that, because otherwise he would’ve left.
3. Aaron Gordon
Here’s how I imagine the conversation between Gordon and Uncle Drew’s casting director going:
CASTING DIRECTOR: Aaron, we’re making an Uncle Drew movie. Wanna be in it?
AARON: Wait, you’re making an entire movie out of that Pepsi commer—
(OK, let’s skip over the 17-minute part of this hypothetical conversation during which Gordon and the casting director discuss how dumb it is that a scripted movie is being made out of a series of Pepsi commercials.)
AARON: Look, thanks for thinking of me. But I don’t want to spend my whole offseason putting on makeup so I can be Kyrie Irving’s sidekick.
CASTING DIRECTOR: But you won’t have to! We just need one active NBA player to play a young basketball star who happens to be very good at dunking!
AARON: I’m in!
It’s the role Gordon was born to play. This movie makes him look like the most dominant talent alive, throwing down silly dunks and draining 40-foot 3-pointers. It’s a pretty good glow-up for a 22-year-old NBA player. Plus, he does an effective job delivering trash talk.
At one point, Gordon is advised to not pass to one of his teammates named “Mario,” because Mario is awful. Honestly, this hits a little too close to home.
4. Nate Robinson
Lil Nate comes in relatively high on this ranking because he spends virtually the entire movie not talking. It takes about half an hour after Robinson’s character—a grandfather named Boots who uses a wheelchair until he’s given his favorite pair of shoes from 1968—appears on screen to talk. At that point, somebody says he looks like Frederick Douglass—“I hear you’re doing great things!”—and he snaps into action to deliver one of his two lines: “Hold my beer.” (The other line: “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.”)
Robinson is in the upper half of basketball players-turned-actors in Uncle Drew for two reasons. First, Robinson is a notably rambunctious person, the player whose vibe most closely resembles a third-grader who just ate too much candy. Somehow, the director got him to sit down and stay silent for most of the movie. Nice acting! Second, I listened to all the basketball players who said stuff throughout this movie. Remaining quiet is often better.
5. Lisa Leslie
Leslie plays Chris Webber’s wife, Betty Lou, who turns into a Vengeful Woman Character when Webber decides to leave the ministry to play basketball. She has a baseball bat. All the other characters keep remarking on how angry Leslie is, but honestly, she seems nice.
6. Shaquille O’Neal
In a mid-credits scene—yes, even Uncle Drew has a mid-credits scene—Shaq screams that he’s “come a long way since Kazaam!” I wouldn’t go that far. You can summarize every Shaq acting performance by watching a few commercials for the General car insurance and this GIF of Shaq shimmying. He dances and makes a lot of weird noises, both of which can be mildly entertaining. If you want to see Shaq’s butt, go see Uncle Drew. You will definitely see Shaq’s butt.
Shaq plays Big Fella, a martial arts instructor who hasn’t spoken to Drew since 1968, when their dominant streetball team was torn apart due to a fight Big Fella and Drew had over a woman. The worst scene of the movie by far (and one of maybe three scenes that doesn’t include Lil Rel) comes when the two hash out their beef in a graveyard. “I know that you loved her,” one of the characters says. “Well, why’d you sleep with her?” says the other. “I loved her too.”
Uncle Drew does not pass the Bechdel test.
7. Kyrie Irving
The only thing flatter than Irving’s perception of the globe is his performance in Uncle Drew. The first time Kyrie speaks in his Uncle Drew voice—it’s Kyrie’s regular voice, except deeper and raspier—you’ll remember that this is a movie starring a professional basketball player pretending to be an old person. Unfortunately, Uncle Drew has to participate in serious conversations about seven or eight times in the movie, as he imparts his wisdom to those around him. (He thinks it’s important to play the game the right way and that people shouldn’t be too focused on money.)
Some of the gags with Drew are half-decent—his need to blast the heat even when it’s 100 degrees out, his complete ignorance of the fact that his favorite Isley Brothers song was later sampled by Notorious B.I.G.—but it’s a letdown whenever Kyrie’s character speaks. It’s a reminder that the original Pepsi ads were funny because it was surprising to see an old guy tear it up on a basketball court. This movie features no such surprise.
8. Reggie Miller
If you asked me to identify my least favorite thing about my favorite sport, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer: It’s listening to Reggie Miller announce Thursday-night NBA games. Three hours a week for six months, I subject myself to Miller loudly telling everyone the least insightful things that pop into his head.
That’s why it was downright triggering to have Reggie Miller injected into a moviegoing experience. I assure you, Miller makes no attempt to alter his voice or persona for the sake of playing Lights, a former teammate of Drew’s who is blind until Drew gives him a special pair of goggles. How excited do you think a man who just regained sight for the first time in decades would be? Reggie Miller thinks the answer is “talking in a slightly louder-than-normal voice.” That is all Reggie Miller does, ever.