For all of the success that Kenya Barris has had on TV, his film output as a director and especially a screenwriter is bizarrely spotty. For a project like “Girls Trip” (co-written with Tracy Oliver), we then have his directorial debut, Netflix’s “You People” from last January, co-written and starring Jonah Hill, which felt less like a comedy and more like a trap for anybody in front of the camera.
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Barris doesn’t direct his latest screenwriting and producing effort, a Hulu-direct remake of Ron Shelton’s 1992 movie “White Men Can’t Jump,” but it comes loaded with many of the same uneasy qualities as “You People.” Thankfully, director Calmatic (who also remade “House Party” earlier this year) points this project’s powers away from the corny jokes. And thanks to a sensitive performance from Sinqua Wallis, Calmatic’s take on “White Men Can’t Jump” is better when it’s a sports story about a man learning to believe in himself and facing his mental health after years of external pressure. Like this project’s title, the white man is just extra baggage at this point.
The unlikely combo of a Black basketball player and a white surprise was originally played unforgettably and with plenty of tension by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. In an exciting first act, they were thrown together in the unruly world of pick-up basketball. Even though they undermined each other and often butted heads, the two wise-mouths worked together to hustle other players on various courts, sometimes with the opposing team not knowing their original relationship before tip-off. Trash-talking provided the foundation — usually about race or class, someone’s mama — and, along with basketball, became their bond.
This remake offers a similar buddy story for the renamed Kamal and Jeremy, played here by Wallis and Grammy-nominated rapper Jack Harlow. The two are animated with just enough on-screen chemistry to work as unlikely friends, with Kamal holding his skepticism, protecting himself against Jeremy and his woo-woo ways.
Harlow makes his acting debut here, and he’s still figuring out what could make him a striking screen presence. Taking after Harrelson’s deceptively dorky clothes in Shelton’s original, Harlow wears sandals with socks, carries an NPR tote bag, and talks openly about going to therapy. He takes ginger shots and tries to get Kamal to lighten up with some meditation. The character is, by design, supposed to be corny, but Harlow can’t make his corniness funny and sincere. Jeremy means well, but he’s still kind of annoying.
Barris and co-writer Doug Hall emphasize the past with this remake but in a clumsy way. Both Kamal and Jeremy have a tough relationship with basketball, in which the game has barely loved them back: Kamal was an NBA hopeful zealously pushed along by his father (Lance Reddick), who ended that hope after fighting some verbally abusive fans during a tense high school game. Jeremy, who previously played for Gonzaga, is frustrated with his two torn ACLs and dreams of getting stem cell surgery. The money scraped from pick-up games and later amateur tournaments could go a long way to helping them and their loved ones.
Kamal and Jeremy are given unique problems for them to overcome in this screenplay, and yet the story is contrived in when it wants to use them. Any beats about Kamal’s lost hopes of success, or Jeremy’s injuries, are shoehorned right on time. It’s a nagging problem that adds to other clumsy flourishes, like the number of scenes that squeeze in dialogue via ADR or the cheesy score that emphasizes some dull scene blocking, making the movie play out like a sitcom on the court.
Wallis helps save some of the movie’s dramatic worth when it becomes about Kamal facing the father who pushed him further into basketball and the triggering feeling of being a disappointment to his partner Imani (Teyani Taylor) or his son Drew (Aiden Shute). Later into the movie, we get even more of a sense of the pressure Kamal felt as a young hopeful and how it took the fun out of the game for him. The late Reddick, to whom this film is dedicated, has only a few minutes of screen time but helps round out this surprising emotional arc.
Perhaps worst of all, the movie is light on the laughs meant to come from trash-talking; the comedy just doesn’t have the crispiness it needs. But some sequences do try, like whenever Jeremy gets called a “pilgrim” or when Jeremy experiments with pressure points about digs related to Blackness, he can even say. Vince Staples and Myles Bullock, as Kamal’s animated buddies Speedy and Renzo, are thrown in to provide some goofy asides, and they hint at the more irascible, chaotic version this film can only dream of. Even when it gets outside and mixes in some other unamused adversaries, Calmatic’s “White Men Can’t Jump” can feel as boxed-in as playing inside a gym.
“White Men Can’t Jump” at least has enough scenes of pure basketball showmanship, which can be exciting in a touch-and-go way, especially when Calmatic and cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw use one of their beloved drone shots to zip around the court. But the movie can hardly stave off the sense that it’s a disposable remake, that the original is also waiting on Hulu as a time capsule with numerous sharp edges. By the end of this “White Men Can’t Jump,” we are none the wiser. [C]