White Men Can’t Jump did not need remaking. Rosie Perez, queen of the scene-stealers, made sure of that in 1992. “Listening versus hearing” remains among the all-time on-screen debates. Even the title encapsulated a time when basketball fandom in the 80s and 90s really was a black-and-white issue. The A-story about the mobsters hunting for their vigorish? Completely incidental. The R-rating for a comedy? No argument there.
That’s not to say the update, which premieres on Hulu, is an airball. Power’s Sinqua Walls certainly looks the part of Kamal, the hoops prodigy, to the point where the script even makes fun of his uncanny resemblance to the Miami Heat great Dwyane Wade. Teyana Taylor brings her true life experience as an NBA wife to the part of Kamal’s partner, Imani. Vince Staples and Myles Bullock are the best couple on screen, even when their chemistry is short-circuited at the end by a long-anticipated third wheel. Director of photography Tommy Maddox-Upshaw captures LA vistas in full golden-hour splendor. Marcelo Zarvos’s score is an unspoiled mix of old school and new. But none of it saves a film that undermines its own premise.
By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the script with the ham-fisted approach to delicate racial nuances has Kenya Barris on the byline. This time, Jack Harlow (not Jonah Hill) is the white guy in the hoodie looking to get some run on an outdoor LA court. You know, the mop-haired fella posturing in those New Balance adverts alongside the LA Clippers cyborg Kawhi Leonard. That’s the hustle, isn’t it – judging the cover, not the book, and so on. But, come on, who’s falling for this okie-doke in 2023?
The best player in the NBA right now is a plodding seven-footer from Serbia who dominates in the paint, drains three-pointers – and barely jumps. The best jump-shooter is a 6ft Black kid from Charlotte. The consensus top pick in this upcoming NBA draft is a teenage Franco-Cameroonian skyscraper. Race is less a basketball construct than it is a first-definition characterization of the game’s breakneck pace. Gone are the days when to be a white basketball fan was to pledge unswerving loyalty to Larry Bird. Today, it’s the sensational Jayson Tatum, a brother from St Louis, who carries Celtic pride.
A biracial pickup hoops duo that’s as iffy about their partnership as opponents are to engage would’ve made for one helluva film, perhaps one even worthy of the title this one’s retaken. But that idea isn’t much explored beyond the scene where Kamal and Jeremy team up with a motley crew looking for two extras to fill out their team. When one player in wraparound shades immediately sniffs out their ruse (and not because of the huge surgical scars on Jeremy’s knees), another still in his Chick-fil-A uniform asks: “Can’t you just buy crypto? Run a credit-card scam if you need cash?”
It perfectly illustrates what trash talk has become since Barack Obama took cabinet members and NBA legends to the hole, and it’s a shame the film-makers don’t lean in harder. When the dialogue isn’t overly expository, Barris and co-writer Doug Hall try for laughs with jokes about pressed juice and meditation, panning holistic wellness as they ostensibly promote it. Protracted bits about Hennessy and Kyoto sandals would seem AI-generated if the product placement wasn’t so deliberate. Overall, the 100-minute film unspools like a streaming TV series in the hands of the House Party remake director Calmatic – perhaps in anticipation of Hulu stuffing this thing with commercials for sneakers and soft drinks.
But the great shame in this film is the Jeremy character who, for all his easy charm, nonetheless represents a certain kind of problematic white boy whose always-down demeanor is just so cringe. There’s no question production sought cover turning over the part to Harlow, the latest in a long line of BET Awards-embraced white rappers. His on-court swagger is convincing enough, but his insistence on topping it off with his natural blaccent – however light – is wholly unnecessary, if not downright insulting. It doesn’t just ghettoize a game that has become truly universal through 30 years of deep cultural exchange; it suggests the only way white men can excel at it is through some form of blackface. As if Austin Reaves, the white pro from the Arkansas backwoods who earned the nickname “Hillbilly Kobe” in college, didn’t totally endear himself to Lakers fans while coming through in clutch for LeBron James and wigging out like a bowler.
The original film understood all this and got the details right – down to Billy Hoyle’s country ways being more substantial than his whiteness. The remake rips the headlines for a try-hard backstory that would be otherwise irredeemable if not for Lance Reddick’s tender farewell performance as Kamal’s Lavar Ball-esque father, Benji.
If it’s commentary on the game you’re after, the actual professionals and hoop TikTokers offer far better. White Men Can’t Jump didn’t miss the first time, and it continues to resonate like a Shaquille O’Neal alley-oop. The reboot, a basic nostalgia play, shouldn’t scam anyone.