In a world filled with already bizarre attempts at turning NBA stars into actors, Uncle Drew might be the most bizarre. The movie, which was based on a commercial, featured Kyrie Irving donning geriatric makeup as he got together a crew featuring Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, and several other basketball legends. The result was a strange film that seemed both outdated and unique.
What is Uncle Drew?
Uncle Drew came from a successful Pepsi ad campaign starring Irving in the titular role. The ads featured Irving dressed as an elderly basketball player wreaking havoc on a much younger crowd on the basketball court. As a 30-second advertising campaign, the commercials worked. Irving had charisma and star power, and the hilarity of seeing a geriatric ball player dunking and dribbling with ease made them a hit.
The film’s writer, Jay Longino, thought that an Uncle Drew movie was a joke at first. He spoke about the call he got from producer Marty Bowen with The Ringer.
“[Bowen] calls me, and he’s like, ‘Have you seen these Uncle Drew shorts online?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he was like, ‘Well, what do you think about those being a feature?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Longino told The website. “To me, [it sounded like] the Saturday Night Live skit turned into a movie that doesn’t work. That was my gut reaction.”
The idea was real, and Longino took the role. A lifelong basketball fan with a passion for sports movies, Longino agreed to help get the film off the ground, and before long, the pair were given the green light. The idea of a commercial-based basketball isn’t new, however. Space Jam came to be after a commercial featuring Michael Jordan.
Making the movie
Irving agreed to perfect the role, and after brainstorming several ideas, the makers decided to keep with the spirit of the commercial. They turned to the old trope of getting the band back together that was perfected by The Blues Brothers and brought on an all-star cast of basketball talent. However, the co-lead went to Lil Rel, who was fresh off of his lauded turn in the horror film Get Out.
By getting O’Neal on board, the makers banked on the same star power that made Blue Chips work years earlier. Webber, Miller, Aaron Gordon, and WNBA star Lisa Leslie helped round out the cast. To add to the comedy, the film hired JE Skeets and Nick Kroll to play small roles in the production. It was an audacious cash grab based on a commercial that never should have worked. Surprisingly, however, the movie fared better than people may realize.
Was it a hit?
Space Jam was a critical failure, but a hit with the fans. Uncle Drew, which was made on an $18 million budget, made two-and-a-half times its shooting budget and managed to earn a 62-percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. While not a hit with everyone, several critics lauded the comedy in the film and praised it for going all-in on such a bizarre contrast.
In a world where NBA-based movies are a mixed bag, Uncle Drew was a surprising hit. Irving gave his all in the role, and non-actors like Webber even showed their comedic chops. The movie was far from a cultural phenomenon like Space Jam was with fans, but when considering everything that went on in production, it went about as good as possible.
Two years have passed since Uncle Drew hit theaters, and its staying power is questionable. However, it’s a great study about how something so unlikely could have some merit.