By Seth Freilich | Film | May 22, 2023 |
By Seth Freilich | Film | May 22, 2023 |
…Because you didn’t. I don’t know who the hell wanted this dud. The new White Men Can’t Jump is not a terrible movie; it is a flat nothing. It’s not a good sports movie, nor is it a good comedy. It’s just an unfunny thing that viewers will likely forget about before they even get to the credits.
The premise of this remake roughly follows the outline of the 1992 original* — two amateur basketball players, one Black and one white — become unlikely friends while trying to make some money playing street ball. The film starts by introducing us to Kamal, played by Sinqual Walls (American Soul, Teen Wolf). Kamal is being featured on ESPN along with his father (Lance Reddick, sadly in one of his last roles), and we learn that Kamal is the number one high school recruit in the country. Flash forward ten years and life hasn’t led Kamal to the NBA. Instead, he’s playing small ball in local gyms with his friends, with a day job as a delivery man. Similarly, Jeremy (Jack Harlow, a recently minorly popular rap star), a former college player (Gonzaga, because white, you see), has had multiple ACL surgeries that ruined any career for him, so now he’s down-on-his-luck, hustling supplements on social media and training younger kids where he can.
*Relying upon the original’s rough shape is presumably the extent of the original writer/director Ron Shelton’s involvement with a “story by” shared credit here.
The two meet in a local gym and square off, but oh no, it turns out the white kid can make some shots, and he shows Kamal up. The scene is very similar in conceit to an early one in the original, only it lacks any sense of fun (and certainly lacks laughs). In fact, this scene is emblematic of the two main problems with this entire film. First, while Walls holds his own pretty well throughout, Harlow makes it very clear that this is his acting debut. Nothing he does is interesting. His performance is flat, and virtually every scene he is in suffers for it, no matter how good everyone around him is. Second, the screenplay by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Doug Hall (also Black-ish) is unfunny and lazy. Every beat of the story is predictable, which is absolutely OK for a sports comedy as long as the film hits those last two beats — good sport and funny comedy. Barris and Hall forget about that here; the basketball scenes are boring, and the humor is virtually nonexistent.
Anyway, the two eventually start hustling some games to get into tournaments and make some real money. Kamal’s wife, Imani (Teyana Taylor, also a musician but, unlike Harlow, with some actual acting ability), owns a salon and supports him within reason. Jeremy’s girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier), meanwhile, is fed up with Jeremy’s inability to give up on basketball. To Barris and Hall’s credit, they don’t write her as a nag but, much like Rosie Perez’s Gloria in the original, her character simply recognizes that he is not giving her what she wants or needs and that he needs to grow up. Where things go from here, again, is predictable and doesn’t much matter. Kamal and Jeremy play some basketball and have a falling out. Kamal and his sick father have a touching scene (RIP Lance). Imani and Tatiana are given a little to do, but not much. And there’s a big tournament at the end of the film that mostly ties everything together. A to B to C, leave your jokes at home.
First-time director and rap music video director Calmatic fares better behind the camera than Harlow does in front of it. While the film is listless, it does at least keep moving along, and Calmatic seems to have done the best he can with what he was given to work with. The shame of it is, aside from the fact that White Men Can’t Jump could have used actual jokes, there are also a few hints at something more here. When Jeremy first shows up at Kamal’s gym with his social media equipment and a young boy he’s training, someone scolds him to “stop using that young Black kid for clout.” Later, when Kamal and Jeremy start to get their hustle on, the notion of the hustle merely being that Jeremy is white “won’t work here, too many white guys” and “the race shit is dated.” These are good modern takes on some old, stale tropes, but the film doesn’t bother to pull the thread on any of them. They’re treated as jokes, which fall flat, and then the movie is on to the next dud moment.
The fact that this remake wasn’t interested in doing something more is no more apparent than by how it botches one of the best things about the original. Now look. The 1992 film is no great work of art. But it is surprisingly decent. Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes have great chemistry, Rosie Perez is excellent, and aside from a clunky mob storyline (eschewing that is maybe the only good decision this version makes), the film is light and funny enough. Maybe best of all, after Harrelson’s Billy lies to her, Perez’s Gloria pulls that last straw and leaves his ass in the third act. While he eventually seemingly pulls his shit together, it’s without her by his side. It’s a strong and surprising ending for a sports comedy and gives the original some heft. Here be spoilers for the remake, which telegraphs throughout that it’s not going to follow the same path. While Jeremy’s girlfriend leaves him, she does come back. And while she doesn’t say “yes” to his marriage proposal, the film certainly implies they’re gonna be just fine. Phooey.
Legendary coach John Wooden once said that “if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” By that metric, this movie is doing everything.