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But the Hulu film isn't quite a slam dunk
White Men Can't Jump is both blessed and cursed by being a remake. The original is well-liked by most, so there is a recognizability for the title out there in the great calamitous sea of steaming content options. Moreover, the 1992 picture isn't exactly Casablanca. Though many certainly saw it in theaters, it's more of a basic cable stalwart then sacrosanct cinema. And since pop culture has changed, while the love of basketball — and trash talk — has remained, it's a smart bet for a remake.
The problem is that the 2.0 version, while always watchable, is a hearty, athletic leap backwards in terms of storytelling. Sure, there's nothing new under the sun, but there's really nothing new here. Nearly all of the character grace notes that made Ron Shelton's version pop are gone, replaced with a whole lot of chatter. The characters fire off zings and riff with one another in the typical post-Apatow manner of the dominant culture — and some of the jokes certainly land — but good luck locating anything resembling heart here.
The premise is simple. Sinqua Walls is Kamal Allen, a one-time high school basketball champ headed for the NBA who let his bad temper derail his career. Jack Harlow, the hip hop artist in the first of what I think will be a lengthy career in feature films, is Jeremy, the titular white guy. He's a natural born hustler, coming across as a bit of a doofus (and passive-aggressive trash talker), but when it comes time to play, he's incredible. Were it not for injuries with his knees, he'd likely be playing professionally.
Jeremy is is a smooth talker — he's selling detox potions, he's trying to get his TikTok game going, and he's a leach at the gym making motivational pep talks. The most interesting thing about this movie is that Kenya Barris and Doug Hall's script remains vague about Jeremy's inner life. You never quite know what's a put-on with this guy. He's all about meditation one minute, then popping pills the next. Harlow is also an interesting mix — he's a twerpy Charlie Day type one minute, then a more traditional leading man the next. It's a genuinely good performance!
Anyway, Kamal and Jeremy cross paths, and Kamal gets hustled. (Again, it's unclear if Jeremy walked onto the court with the intention to hustle Kamal.) The two guys, who are both in financial dire straits, realize they would make a good team and decide to enter a Venice Beach competition with a significant cast prize. Before they can do that, though, they need dough for the entry fee, which means hitting up local spots for some quick hustles.
Part of the 2023-ness of it is how part of Jeremy's irritating strategy is to come across as what you'd call "woke," which most of the Black men shooting hoops interpret as a different shade of racism. Don't look for White Men Can't Jump to solve the most deeply rooted social problem in American society, but you can look to it for some choice barbs about prejudice.
If you've seen the original movie, you've got one question on your mind at this time: "This sounds OK, but what about the girlfriend?" As one old enough to remember being in a crowded opening weekend theater in 1992, I can tell you that the scenes that got the biggest reaction were of the Jack Harlow character (played by Woody Harrelson) and his interactions with his tornado of a girlfriend, played by Rosie Perez. I guess Barris and Hall, and director Calmatic, figured they could never replace her and just decided to skip it. Both Kamal and Jeremy have girlfriends, but the characters are paper thin, and the scenes aren't particularly memorable. There's none of the "Wait, where did this come from?" brilliance of Perez being daffy one minute, then kicking ass on Jeopardy! next.
Instead, there are some okay trash-talk comedy moments with Kamal's two buddies, played by Vince Staples and Myles Bullock, and a touching scene or two with Kamal's father, played by the late Lance Reddick. But by the time of the big game, I must sadly report that there aren't any real stakes. What should have you cheering with all your might is met, instead, with an, "Oh, I guess we're wrapping up soon."
Alas, for each element of the movie that feels fresh, there's something holding it back. Even the needle drops on the soundtrack are rote. "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays and "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by War? Wasn't there someone in the editing suite to trash-talk those choices? Maybe that's the sequel.
Premieres: Friday, May 19 on Hulu
Who's in it: Sinqua Walls, Jack Harlow
Who's behind it: Calmatic (director); Kenya Barris and Doug Hall (screenwriters)
For fans of: Shooting hoops