‘White Men Can’t Jump’ Review: Jack Harlow’s Acting Debut Is a Shaggy Underdog Cliche
If you were wondering what’s poppin’ with best-selling rap star Jack Harlow this month, well, he’s officially in the industry, baby. The film industry to be precise.
The same artist who recently claimed he was “the hardest white boy since the one who rapped about vomit and sweaters” makes his acting debut with a remake of the 1992 sports comedy classic “White Men Can’t Jump.”
But there’s nothing hard about this new movie, even with its R-rated language. It’s a near total Disneyfication of the original in which all the incredible dialogue, daredevil sports moves, charismatic acting and unpredictable plotting have been replaced with vaguely good-natured banter and shaggy underdog clichés.
“White Men Can’t Jump” stars Sinqua Walls — so excellent in Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny” — as Kamal, a former high school basketball legend who fell on hard times and now barely scrapes by as a delivery driver. He still plays basketball, where he works through his ample emotional baggage on the court. But that anger leaves him open to get hustled by Jeremy (Harlow), an unassuming Beverly Hills brat in socks and sandals who also brushed up against sporting greatness before he tragically blew out his knees.
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When Kamal’s anger issues cost him valuable shifts at work, he turns to Jeremy, who’s training basketball players and hocking homemade energy drinks as a side gig (and who also needs cash). If they can trick local players into underestimating Jeremy — which is pretty easy to do since he dresses like a Goop guru — they can hustle them out of enough money to buy their way into a local tournament where the grand prize is $25,000.
And so we find Kamal and Jeremy playing one basketball game after another, wisecracking about their cultural differences all the while. From Jeremy, Kamal eventually learns the value of detox drinks and meditation. From Kamal, Jeremy eventually learns… some other stuff, perhaps, but on-camera their relationship is pretty one-sided.
It’s tempting to compare the new “White Men Can’t Jump” to the old one, but aside from the basic premise and a few elements of the plot they have very little in common. Ron Shelton’s original film had a spectacular screenplay full of distinct characters who were driven and repeatedly undone by their own nature. The story spun in unexpected directions and ended with a smart message about the philosophical complexity of success and failure. Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez were at the top of their game, comedically and dramatically. It’s a classic for a reason.
Calmatic’s remake, written by Kenya Barris and Doug Hall (“Grown-ish”), is more focused and formulaic. It’s a mismatched buddy comedy which tries — and sometimes succeeds — to tell an emotional story about processing failure and shame, but it doesn’t have anything terribly interesting to say about it.
Sure, it’s genuinely moving when the late Lance Reddick shows up as Kamal’s father with inspirational words about how Kamal’s family deserves to see him experience joy. And there are moments when Jeremy hits rock bottom and Jack Harlow gets to prove he can act out a scene that requires more from him than just looking fun to hang out with. But these highlights are rare and between them most of the film plays like filler.
Calmatic made his feature film directorial debut earlier this year with another remake of an early ’90s comedy classic, “House Party,” and for the most part that was also frustratingly rote. But there was one sequence in “House Party” which was truly, comedically inspired, suggesting that this filmmaker has imagination and energy to spare when it’s not bottled up by generic screenwriting.
Sadly, there are no outlets for that vivacity in “White Men Can’t Jump.” It’s a stripped down, conventional, mediocre version of a story that used to be anything but.
It’s hard to imagine new audiences, who have never seen the original, watching this new version and understanding what all the fuss is about. Fans of the original may appreciate the film’s many, often subtle shoutouts to Shelton’s version — the flag designs on backboards, the same basketball court in Watts, and a scene with a gun that’s been amusingly upgraded to a scene with a flamethrower — but the original movie can be found right next to this one on Hulu and there’s no reason for audiences not to click on that version instead.
“White Men Can’t Jump” streams on Hulu May 19.
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