It is not a new or strange thing for professional athletes to want to be seen as more than the sum of their athletic achievements, and you don’t need to be a professional athlete to understand why. For the athletic portion of their strange hothouse lives, these people—normal humans, except for the extremely obvious ways in which they are not—enjoy the outsized rewards of their physical brilliance, but it’s also easy to see how that work might come to feel like a locked groove. Do the thing, add it up, compare it, do it again, then do it again, then do it again. These are extremely competitive people, but they are still people, and as such might eventually come to feel like prisoners to the numbers they create and the pressures and distances those numbers create in turn. It would be natural to rebel against a life of rote competition and accumulation, and to wish for some sort of expressive escape. This is all pretty abstract, I know, but I am trying my best here. I am trying to understand what it is that made Kyrie Irving want to make Uncle Drew, a real feature-length film that you can currently see in theaters across the country; the movie is about an old man who is unexpectedly much better at basketball than your average old man and also spends a lot of time standing in front of Pepsi logos.
There are two main perspectives through which to assess Uncle Drew, and while both are pretty opaque, one is notably darker than the other. There is the sense in which the movie is some sort of apotheosis for branded content—a long film commercial based on a shorter television commercial, which has expanded to the point that it is now able to fit a number of other brands into the picture. As it happens, Uncle Drew is indeed as egregiously brand-spattered as you might imagine—ESPN’s 30 For 30 logo is one of the first things that appears onscreen, the second onscreen credit reads “In Association With Pepsi Productions,” and at one point Nick Kroll’s villain just straight-up shouts out Pepsi, Oberto, and Aleve (“number one pain reliever in the game right now”). Short of adding a wisecracking sidekick named Nike who is played by an animated swoosh, it’s hard to imagine how that company could figure more prominently in the film.
Almost all of this is at least plausibly diegetic, but it’s also undeniably and unmistakably advertorial of the squickiest and most contemporary kind. “Every day, we continue to extend the equity of our iconic Pepsi brand beyond the bottle,” the general manager for Pepsi’s Creators League Studio said when the film project was first announced back early last year. “Today’s consumers want to live the brand as much as consume it, and the tremendous success we’ve had with the Uncle Drew franchise is a perfect example of how we’re building ecosystems around our flagship brands.” That is the mentality that produced Uncle Drew, that offense against the language is how that mentality expresses itself, and that mentality’s presence is never anything but palpable during Uncle Drew’s abbreviated running time. But!
But there is another, more interesting way to watch Uncle Drew, and that was the one I opted for when it became clear that attempting to Count The Brands would require observational and computational powers beyond me. Watch this extremely strange movie in this other way, and it even sort of works on its own terms. Viewed as a long commercial, which again it very much is, the movie unsurprisingly plays exactly like a long commercial. Seen as a Kyrie Irving Passion Project, which it somehow also is, it’s something else entirely. It’s a comedy, but what’s both weirdest and generally most appealing about Uncle Drew is what it takes seriously, and that seems to start with Irving.
The perverse Live The Brand conditions of its creation guaranteed that Uncle Drew was going to be weird, but it’s to the credit of all involved that it’s weird in more or less the opposite of what you might expect from a machine-tooled brand extrusion. Instead of all that latex makeup slipping to reveal a gleaming robot face mouthing the words Pepsi Lets You Express Yourself, stray rays of humanity keep shining through the (many) holes in the story. The movie itself whipsaws between gooey sentiment, arch commercial-grade irony, and broad kid-oriented comedy—the biggest laugh in the theater was the result of a surprise reveal of Shaquille O’Neal’s tremendous nude ass—while making its leisurely way through a plot that’s basically The Blues Brothers with more aggressive makeup, notably more basketball, and a lustrously permed Chris Webber.
That’s a lot to keep straight, tonally speaking, and Uncle Drew most definitely does not keep it straight. There is a scene in which Shaq and Kyrie, both wearing what appear to be six pounds of latex makeup, share an emotional moment over the grave of a woman they both loved and there is a scene in which they and their buddies battle some whippersnappers in a dance-off, and those two scenes are separated by maybe 10 minutes of screen time. There are intermittent and mostly satisfying detours into state-of-the-art comedy, and you will not be surprised to learn that scenes in which professionally funny people Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll are doing the improvising tend to work a lot better than the ones featuring past and present members of All-NBA teams. Kroll, who is styled to look kind of like iconic Syracuse backcourt dirtbag Eric Devendorf, seems to enjoy himself immensely.
But what’s strangest and most striking about the division of labor is how much acting the film requires its non-actors to do. Reggie Miller, being Reggie Miller, wears barely any age makeup and makes no attempt to age or alter his familiar honking voice; for some reason he is styled to look like circa-now Kareem. But all the other recognizable basketball types in the film commit to their performances much more than is frankly necessary. The film’s basic value proposition is that you get to watch Webber, Irving, Miller, Shaq, Nate Robinson, and Lisa Leslie put on old-people makeup and give some much younger people buckets. That’s not a bad value proposition, honestly, but it shifts over the course of the film to the point where, by the end, the fun part is catching the little grace notes in Nate Robinson’s startlingly soulful performance as a near-catatonic geriatric baller named Boots, or admiring the extent to which Chris Webber is really putting his back into his imitation of Eddie Murphy’s imitation of a corny preacher. Even Aaron Gordon, in a thankless role as a mercenary dick under Kroll’s sway, manages to project enough mercenary dick vibes that it’s gratifying when (spoiler?) Lisa Leslie hits some runners on him in those prescription socks that diabetics wear.
It would be false to say that Uncle Drew offers some insight into what Kyrie Irving aspires to, or values, or even really thinks is funny beyond saying “youngblood” a lot. This is for the best; it would be upsetting if a children’s movie about old people who can dunk illuminated anything about anyone’s inner life. But while Uncle Drew isn’t really good by any of the conventional definitions of that word, it is significantly better and more enjoyable than it has any right to be. As always with Irving, the NBA’s most opaque star and foremost Instagram Mystic, it’s hard to tell just what his actual commitments are. But it’s enough to say that, whatever Irving and the other performers wanted to do with Uncle Drew, they at least wanted it enough to wrestle some dignity and surprise back from the brands that birthed it. The brands wanted a commercial; Irving clearly wanted something that spoke to some other obscure need. Everyone somehow got what they wanted, but the second victory feels more surprising and gratifying than the first.