‘White Men Can’t Jump’ (2023) Is Inoffensively Safe And Mildly Entertaining – Review
When Woody Harrelson dawned his iconic backward cap and baggy graphic tees in the original White Men Can’t Jump, there were only a handful of notable white stars in basketball. And no disrespect to Larry Bird and John Stockton, but back in the 90s, the question of Caucasian verticality was legitimate. Now, that’s not the case.
I mean, look at the NBA. Serbian superstar Nikola Jokic made a laughing stock out of AD, LeBron, and my Lakers in game one of the Western Conference Finals – which should come as no surprise since the Joker led the underrated Denver Nuggets to the top record in the league. And how about the Sacramento Kings’ rising big-man Domantas Sabonis? The latest “NBA Most Improved” winner Lauri Markkanen? Or Cool Hand Luka Dončić, who gets a name-drop in the 2023 remake.
So yes – we know that white men, can, indeed, jump. Some would argue there’s never been a better time for another White Men Can’t Jump. Others might ask, “Why now? What more can we add to the conversation?” The answer – Jack Harlow, I guess…
This weekend, Hulu jettisons the Kenya Barris-written White Men Can’t Jump (2023), directed by Los Angeles native Calmatic. This is actually the second 90s LA-based comedy that Calmatic put his spin on, just months after LeBron James’s House Party remake dropped earlier this year. The 20th Century Studios production is a reimagining of the 1992 comedy classic created by Ron Shelton.
The story follows Jeremy (Jack Harlow), who’s raising money to repair his busted knees with stem cell treatment, much to the frustration of his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier). Because of the many dynamic white athletes we’ve seen hit the basketball courts since the OG flick, the “geeky white nerd” hustle doesn’t really sell anymore. So in this one, they forego faking Jack Harlow’s basketball ability and instead use his character’s worn-out knees as a catalyst for teaming up with Sinqua Walls, who plays Kamal Allen.
Sinqua is fine as Kamal, a decade-removed high school basketball star who lost everything after getting arrested his senior year. Kamal’s wife, Imani (Teyana Taylor), holds the family down financially by braiding hair from home. Kamal’s father, Benji Allen, played by the late great Lance Reddick, initially seemed like a helicopter parent ala LaVar Ball or Tee Morant. But as the story progresses, we sympathize with the importance of Kamal’s father/son relationship. Their storyline is undoubtedly the most meaningful subplot in the movie.
The movie starts to come alive when the fellas finally get to hop and hustle in the second act. Certain scenes are hits – one, in particular, featuring an actor with extremely large ears made me laugh out loud. Others are misses, like recreating Raymond’s legendary “I’m getting my other gun” moment from the ‘92 film, but it’s a (check notes) flamethrower instead. Supporting players Vince Staples and Myles Bullock occasionally offer a couple of chuckles throughout as well. Additionally, the cameos from professional b-ballers were consistently funny.
It takes a while for the remake to find its footing, but when the film’s heart finally collides with the climax, it’s all the more satisfying. The basketball scenes themselves are well shot, with the camera getting right up into the action. If anything, the execution was so precise that it sometimes feels a little stagey and choreographed. To be fair, everyone kills the original movie for how corny the basketball scenes are. However, what the first White Men flick lacked in good athleticism, it gained in comedy. The new movie, in turn, makes a grand spectacle of the sport but loses a touch of street ball spontaneity.
The jokes are very on the nose. Jack Harlow brings Henny to the cookout… the guys arguing about who’s the better director between PTA and Spike Lee… Kamal joking that his only white artist of choice is Ed Sheeran… And it’s not just the characters; the filmmaking choices hammer you over the head with racial reconciliation. Because, of course, these guys would be joyously meditating together under the sunset while War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” plays in the background. Don’t go into this movie expecting nuance or subtlety.
The 1992 film found a graceful balance between jokes at the expense of race and at each of the character’s flaws. The first version painted Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle as a hot-headed, genuinely controlling asshole to his girlfriend, Rosie Perez. Meanwhile, Wesley Snipe’s Sidney Deane is a showy, braggadocious scammer with little moral empathy. Watching those characters unpack and exploit each other’s weaknesses provided enormous laughs for people of all backgrounds.
With this 2023 adaptation movie, all the ribbing is just surface-level. Combined, there doesn’t seem to be a single character flaw between the both of them. The only bad thing about these guys is that they dream a little too big, which is detrimental to both the comedy and the character’s emotional arc. Now we’re only left with empty, network-friendly race jokes that you could only imagine were written for Anthony Anderson and the “Black-ish” co.
The new White Men Can’t Jump is inoffensively safe and mildly entertaining from time to time. But it doesn’t reignite the spark that the original created. Outside of the resulting mediocrity, there’s nothing “wrong” with its safer approach. But “safe” isn’t what imprinted Ron Shelton’s White Men into the cultural lexicon over thirty years later. We’ll have to see what mark the Barris-produced/written White Men Can’t Jump leaves in 2023.