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There’s so much gall in director Calmatic’s “White Men Can’t Jump,” but not of the good kind, not the kind he intends. It’s the type of noxious audacity that undermines him, that turns a classic into a rote joke, rendering his film a tedious ordeal. You’re never quite sure what he wants to accomplish or why he thinks this story is ripe for a retelling (a glaring weakness shared by his “House Party” remake, too). The film is as unimaginative as it is corny, as dull as it is cheap, and as unfulfilling as any cash grab for a well-known property could be.
Writer/director Ron Shelton’s “White Men Can’t Jump” displayed a certain deft touch that this new version sorely lacks. It inverted stereotypes to reveal other stereotypes bouncing on the surface through Billy Doyle (Woody Harrelson), a white former college basketball great now saddled with a major gambling debt, traveling across the country to avoid his creditors. Since Black folks often underestimate white people’s basketball prowess, traveling with his girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez), he hustles pick-up basketball games, such as the one played by streetballer Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes), to earn some cash. Billy and Sidney soon form a hard-earned understanding, ultimately competing in a two-man tournament that reveals the true character of each man.
It’s a smart, agile story that still holds contemporary relevance. That is, unless you’re screenwriters Kenya Barris and Doug Hall. In Calmatic’s hands, their screenplay—which sees the former film as outdated (more on that in a bit)—undoes much of Shelton’s nimble work. Jeremy (a monotone Jack Harlow) is a grifting personal trainer toting an NPR bag and selling detoxing, organic juice to his basketball clients. He was once a college basketball great, but two shredded ACLs kept him from maximizing his potential. He hopes to one day earn enough money to retool his ligaments through stem cells so he might go for the G-league. Similar to Billy, through trash-talking, Jeremy baits Black players into games for money. A stilted, robotic Harlow delivers these barbs with little bite and even less conviction.
His big victim, the only one we see, is Kamal Allen (Sinqua Walls). Kamal is presented as a mystery. The film’s opening scene sees a young Kamal and his dad Benji (Lance Reddick), celebrating his signing with a nationally televised interview. So how did the promising player fall from NBA potential to playing in a basic gym? The only hint we’re given in the first few minutes is a close-up of Benji’s hand trembling as he holds his son’s arm. Ten years later, the easily irritated Kamal is an easy mark for Jeremy—who calls Kamal a “wannabe [James] Harden.” The line is one of the many not-so-subtle attempts to recapture the socio-political spark of Shelton’s script.
What ultimately made the original so indelible, apart from the brimming charisma of the star-studded cast, was its sharp critique of stereotypes: There’s, of course, the provocative title itself. The phrase “White Men Can’t Jump” is presented as a racial truism as common as the sky is blue, which feeds into the perception that white folks can’t play basketball either. It’s a reversal that initially pitches Black people as racially insensitive to whites. Shelton, however, ever-so-subtly spends the movie reconfiguring the phrase: Harrelson really can’t jump (though he could if he practiced), but his nascent leaping ability is a metaphor for his lack of drive. While he chides Snipes for showboating, hotdogging, and not playing fundamental basketball—a plethora of dog whistles neatly sewn into the perception of Black people as jobless thugs—it’s Snipes who is the loving father working several jobs to support his family while Harrelson gambles away his and Perez’s money.
While one shouldn’t entirely write a review around how a remake compares with its predecessor, Calmatic is begging audiences to see his version as the superior offering: Every character makes a quip about how the previous film is outdated. The film minimizes the stereotypes attached to Black athletes and retorts that no one really thinks white men can’t jump anymore. In the dynamics between Jeremy and Kamal, the film wears unseemly post-racial clothes by instead offering half-hearted yet on-the-nose jokes about gentrification, reparations, and clout chasing. The film can nary fathom something like the Angel Reese incident, a Black woman accused of poor sportsmanship against her white opponent in the women’s NCAA championship, happening. Nor does it understand the importance of Rosie Perez’s character in the previous film. Rather she is reimagined as Tatiana, a dancer with barely any screen time or narrative heft.
There is some shallow attempt at navigating Black masculinity and the need for self-care in the face of Black vulnerability, as seen in Kamal’s relationship with his father and the anger issues that stem from his fear of disappointing him, and as represented in his loving relationship with his son and wife (an underused Teyana Taylor). But the film is too busy trying to be a drowsy comedy to pull off sturdy character-building.
It doesn’t help that Calmatic simply lacks the visual storytelling chops to do so too. While slick and aerodynamic, the basketball scenes and the camera swooping through the gameplay with precision don’t feed into the story. What are the mini-narratives in these pickup games? It’s a question left largely unanswered, causing these scrimmages to feel stale and without rhythm (the choppy editing doesn’t help either).
There are so many half-dispensed threads that when we arrive at the conclusion, a final two-on-two championship game culminating in a far happier—and less honest ending—than the previous film, we discover no tension or cause for euphoria. By the end of this “White Men Can’t Jump,” there is only stunned resignation for how near this film remains to the banal ground.
On Hulu today.
Jack Harlow as Jeremy
Sinqua Walls as Kamal
Laura Harrier as Tatiana
Lance Reddick as Benji Allen
Teyana Taylor as Imani
Tamera Kissen as Sheila
Andrew Schulz as TJ
Vince Staples as Speedy
Myles Bullock as Renzo