'Uncle Drew': Kyrie Irving's basketball comedy has occasional bounce

Promotional tie-ins for Uncle Drew include Advil, as befits a movie about 70-somethings bringing their old knees, backs, and hips with them as they return to the game of basketball.

The movie is based on a successful series of online Pepsi commercials, but the ads were also short films, many written and directed by NBA star Kyrie Irving. He plays the title character – in the viral videos, an old man who wanders into a pick-up game and dazzles young players with his skills.

>> READ MORE: ‘Uncle Drew’ director talks working with Kyrie Irving, other basketball stars

The film lacks this element of surprise, so writer Jay Longino (himself a former pro basketball player) has embellished the story to make Drew a former Harlem playground legend who mysteriously and abruptly left the game decades earlier and turns up now and then like a mythic ghost with supernatural ball-handling skills.

He’s sought out by the desperate Dax (Get Out‘s Lil Rel Howery), who’s staked his life savings on a winner-take-all basketball tournament and has lost his star (Aaron Gordon) and team to a childhood rival (Nick Kroll, with perhaps too much camera time).

It’s worth noting that while Dax is not the title character, he is the main character. That was probably a necessity — the movie was shot in a very tiny window between NBA seasons, limiting Irving’s on-set availability.

Dax’s story arc is long enough to include a pair of love interests – first with Tiffany Haddish (who has disappointingly little to do) as the impatient girlfriend who dumps him, then Erica Ash as the woman who gets him on the rebound. The real draw, though, is the roster of former  NBA stars, made up to look like old men, who form the team of dormant has-beens rounded up by Dax and Uncle Drew for the big tournament.

Shaquille O’Neal is a kung fu instructor who needs to squash a beef with Drew, Reggie Miller a former shooting ace now legally blind, Nate Robinson is a speedster now confined to a wheelchair, and Chris Webber a power forward turned preacher – higher-power forward?

Uncle Drew and Dax have to pry the preacher away from his protective wife (Lisa Leslie), and if that sounds familiar, writer Longino has acknowledged that he wanted to give the movie the road-movie structure of The Blues Brothers.

His script is good-natured, more genial than funny, though director (and Philadelphian) Charles Stone III does get some good work from star Irving, who proves surprisingly adept at playing low-key comedy. He has a natural, Paul Rudd-ish ability to counterpunch, to gets laughs with soft-spoken responses to more boisterous scene partners.

In basketball terms, more of an assist man, though the money shots during the Big Game finale are of Irving, gray hair and latex wrinkles, displaying his on-court wizardry. The basketball scenes are fun, and NBA fans who come to see the old men at work should stick around through the closing credits.

MOVIES

Uncle Drew

  • Directed by Charles Stone III. With Lil Rel Howery, Kyrie Irving, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll, Chris Webber and Shaquille O'Neal. Distributed by Lionsgate.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
  • Parents guide: PG-13 (langauge)
  • Playing at: Area theaters