White men who can’t dunk and the Black men who chide them was a fresh, chuckle-worthy idea back in the day. In today’s world, not so much.
When b-ballers Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson trashed talked each other in the R-rated 1992 sports/comedy White Men Can’t Jump, their digs were edgy and hilarious. In this update, with Sinqua Walls (Friday Night Lights) and Jack Harlow (Grammy nominee Best Melodic Rap Performance for “First Class”), the humor seems too homogenized, too PG-13.
Calmatic, the former Grammy Winning director of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” video, marked his feature film debut with the 2023 update of House Party. The dance party scene in House Party showed glimmers of his brilliance, but the rest of the footage proved that he was still working out the kinks in his technique as he transitions from video king to filmmaker. He holds the reins over this revise, and this time out, nothing stands out visually. Not even the way he shoots basketball games. When the ball and players are in motion it’s a perfect time to show fluid, jerky, in-your-face camera movement and flaunt DP skills. There is none. Nothing is eye-catching. This is a missed opportunity.
Kenya Barris, whose TV comedy chops are superb (Black-ish) and film screenplays are hit (Girls Trip) and miss (Shaft), scripted this venture. The characters are set and there are problems aplenty. The narrative, builds, fizzles, builds fizzles…
As a teen basketball champ, Kamal (Walls) had a bright future and a strong parental figure (Lance Reddick, TV’s Blacklist). An incident blew his chances for success and now he’s a twentysomething set adrift and playing L.A. streetball where he can. Jeremy (Harlow) damaged his ACLS so bad playing the game, he swore to his ladyfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman)—and his knees—that he was giving up the brown ball.
The Black brother and young white man meet. Yea, there’s some tension between the alphas as they assess each other’s skills, game and hustle. A bet is placed on who can win a game. It’s on. Kamal: “You think you’re slick, huh. Showing up to courts dressed like a dumbass, acting like you can’t hoop.” Jeremy: “You assumed I couldn’t hoop, because I’m white, which is incredibly outdated.” Kamal: “No, I assumed you couldn’t hoop because you were dressed like a white girl at Whole Foods.”
Before you know it, they’ve joined forces. They’re hustling. Betting on games they set up with unsuspecting players. Jeremy is the bait, Kamal and his friends Renzo (Myles Bullock) and Speedy (Vince Staples) join in. The boys are making cash. Circumstances and money woes push them towards a basketball competition that could be lucrative.
Jeremy has Tatiana as an anchor. Kamal’s woman/friend Imani (Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One) keeps him grounded. The two couples struggle, differently. One is well off the other always looking for a payday. But both relationships have trouble with deception. Gen Zers will relate to their challenges. Too old to be totally irresponsible. Too young to have it all together. The turbulent history between Kamal and his dad adds a depth that gives the shallow narrative needed umph.
But keep in mind that the model for this film was an uproarious comedy that was thorny, with putdowns, insults, jibes and banter that were delivered by the mischievous comedy king Harrelson and consummate actor, Snipes. They milked each scene with macho bravura and laughs. These two new leads don’t recreate that tense energy. And in this screenplay, Kamal’s buddies, played by Bullock and Staples, are the court jesters, Greek chorus and wacky observers of race relations. While Taylor, Harrier and Reddick get weighed down in drama. It’s different.
Harlow is feeling his way around movie sets for the first time. He delivers his lines, shows some personality but has a lot to learn. Walls is a veteran but doesn’t exhibit the command of humor that could have made his character more engaging. Smarter casting would have paired Pete Davidson and Kevin Hart. The visuals alone of tall young skinny Pete and short older muscular Kevin hustling basketball games would be hysterical. That’s before they even opened their mouths. And we know both can talk a lot of funny s—t!
Considering this is a film and not a TV show, the lack of locations is noticeable. What’s on view seems like a series of half-hour episodes pulled together and not a film that could hold a theater audiences’ attention for 1h 41m (editor Jonathan Schwartz, Modern Family). That’s why streaming on Hulu and not screening in a cineplex is a smart idea. A flat screen TV may be kinder to the film’s flaws. Walls has his TV fans. Harlow has millions of music fans. Teens and young adults may tune in.
Certainly the 1992 OG White Man Can’t Jump has a premise worthy of a refresh. This execution is competent, not excellent and doesn’t get the job done. Different casting, saltier language and a better feel for filming sports scenes might have made this pretender a contender.
As is, this update jumps, but never high enough.
On Hulu May 19th.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.