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Net gain: NBA stars step up their comedy game in ‘Uncle Drew’

At times, the basketball comedy “Uncle Drew” feels like a clever “Saturday Night Live” short film stretched to the point of pulling a hamstring in an effort to become an actual movie.

Or should I say, an inventive series of TV ads stretched to movie length, seeing as how it’s based on a series of Pepsi Max advertisements with NBA star Kyrie Irving playing the title character, a onetime playground legend who still has game decades after his prime.

Oh, and at times it’s shamelessly derivative. After Eddie Murphy’s brilliant multicharacter work in the barbershop scenes in “Coming to America,” after Cedric the Entertainer’s terrific old-guy-philosopher performances in the “Barbershop” movies, this movie has the, um, basketballs to have (the admittedly great) J.B. Smoove in old-man makeup as a barber?

No matter. Even though “Uncle Drew” is outlandish and predictable and downright corny, I loved the positive energy of this film, I got a kick out of the winning performances from a cast of all-star comic actors and all-star, well, All-Stars – and I laughed out loud at a steady diet of inside-basketball jokes.

Come on: When a white-haired, 70-something, karate-loving man-mountain played by Shaquille O’Neal gets frustrated on the court and says to a ball hog, “Pass the ball, KOBE,” that’s pretty great.

Lil Rel Howery (who stole every minute he was on screen as TSA officer Rod Williams in “Get Out”) stars as Dax, a diminutive and slightly portly part-time basketball coach and full-time sneaker salesman who is getting his team ready for the annual Rucker Classic – a legendary, outdoor-court tournament in Harlem featuring some of the best freelance players in the country. (There’s actually a “Get Out” joke in “Uncle Drew,” and how’s that for a fast turnaround?)

Every year, Dax’s team loses to a squad coached by his nemesis, the trash-talking d-bag Mookie (Nick Kroll), who has haunted Dax since he blocked Dax’s potential championship-winning shot when they were kids. It looks like history will repeat itself this year when Mookie steals Dax’s star player, Casper (Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic), and Dax’s shallow, trash-talking girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish, in her comfort zone and easily scoring numerous laughs).

Smoove’s old-timey barber, Angelo, urges Dax to seek out the legendary Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving, virtually unrecognizable beneath the superb makeup), and while Dax is scouring the outdoor courts of New York in a desperate quest to assemble a new team, he stumbles upon the man, the myth, the legend himself.

Uncle Drew!

Turns out Uncle Drew still has game. After Uncle D schools a “young blood” in a game of one-on-one, Dax recruits him to play in the Rucker Classic. Drew agrees, but only if he can assemble the roster.

According to this film’s timeline, it’s been 50 years since Uncle Drew and his guys lit up the courts at the Rucker Classic, only to forfeit the championship when the rest of the team didn’t show up for the finals after Uncle Drew slept with the girlfriend of a teammate.

Fifty years. That means Uncle Drew and his former teammates are in their 70s. And yet they’re going to take the court against players in their early 20s? Why not put Uncle Drew’s age at, say, 45, so at least it would seem marginally believable?

Oh well. The screenplay says what the screenplay says.

Dax and Uncle Drew hit the road in Uncle Drew’s vintage van, which still has a working eight-track tape player and a heat system on perpetual blast, because, of course, old folks are always cold.

Lisa Leslie in a scene from the comedy "Uncle Drew"

Lisa Leslie in a scene from the comedy “Uncle Drew.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

In “Blues Brothers” fashion, they put the band back together – a group that eventually includes Preacher (Chris Webber); Preacher’s wife, Betty Lou (three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie); the nearly blind former sharpshooter Lights (Reggie Miller); the mountainous Big Fella (Shaq), still nursing a grudge against Uncle Drew after Uncle D’s terrible betrayal; and Boots (Nate Robinson), who is in a wheelchair and lives in an assisted living facility, with his saintly and lovely and smart granddaughter, Maya (Erica Ash), constantly looking after him.

Hmmm, think there’s a possibility Dax and Maya might get together? No way!

Props to “Uncle Drew” for recognizing the skills of female basketball players – first in a scene in which the old-timers play a pickup game against a girls’ state championship team that teaches them a lesson about teamwork, and then when Betty Lou joins the old-timers at the Rucker Classic and displays some serious skills.

Of course, there’s humor based on the difference between classic soul music and hip-hop. Of course, there’s a moment when the geriatric squad walks toward the camera in slow motion. Of course, there’s a dance-off in a nightclub, pitting the grandpa squad against a bunch of trash-talking young ones. Of course, there’s the time-honored sports movie ending, when everything is on the line and it’s all down to one … last … shot.

Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove and Nick Kroll are terrific, as we’d expect. It’s more of a surprise that basketballers Irving, Miller, Robinson, Leslie, et al., are also quite good.

I’m gonna go out on a limb: This is Shaquille O’Neal’s best performance since “Kazaam.”

There. I said it.

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