When Grammy-winning music video director Calmatic (born Charles Kidd II) made the jump to moviemaking, the music-loving Los Angeles native opted for familiar if smart territory: an updated remake of beloved 1990 teen classic “House Party.” The result was a Warner Bros. release that, though originally slated for HBO Max only, charmed enough studio brass to earn a theatrical release in January. It was a fitting first film for those new to the Calmatic universe, riffing on a dated hit with a contemporary sensibility, updated music cues (and even some classics), super-fun set pieces, and talented young actors.
For his second film, released less than four months later, Calmatic sticks with that already familiar formula. This time around, it’s an updated remake of a beloved 1992 sports comedy classic, “White Men Can’t Jump,” which again offers (and, yes, this is just a copy-paste from above) a contemporary sensibility, updated music cues (and even some classics), super-fun set pieces, and talented young actors. And, just like “House Party,” as fresh as certain elements of Calmatic’s latest are, there’s a distinct lack of energy and cohesion on the screen. In an industry gone mad with remakes, sequels, and requels, the budding filmmaker’s ability to put a new spin on old movies is welcome, but it’s certainly no slam dunk.
Much like his “House Party,” Calmatic doesn’t go for a straight, play-by-play remake here (an invigorating choice), instead opting to take the bare bones of Ron Shelton’s Woody Harrelson- and Wesley Snipes-starring hit comedy and refashioning it for contemporary times. The script, written by Kenya Barris and Paul Hall, still keeps the rough outlines of the Shelton film and its central characters — rapper Jack Harlow (in his first leading role) is the underestimated white dude, while Sinqua Walls (“Nanny,” “The 15:17 to Paris”) is his much more obviously talented and Black soon-to-be partner. Both are LA-based comedies where street hustling and 2-on-2 hoops tournaments can lead to fame and fortune (or at least a well-deserved paycheck).
But that’s about as much material as the films share, as Barris and Hall’s bloated script spends far too much time building in off-the-court motivations to explain why (and how) these two seemingly mismatched ballers end up hustling games together. In short: they need money. We get it! We’ve all been there! Instead of accepting that at face value, Calmatic’s film is overly interested in digging into what makes these guys tick, even though they’re also both clearly drawn types.
Kamal (Walls) is a former high school hotshot, and the film even opens with a young Mal and his dad (the late Lance Reddick) on TV talking about his skills, training, and big plans. Mal’s dad is his rock and biggest supporter — Reddick’s Benji initially scans as something of a LaVar Ball stand-in, but there’s much more going on here — and their fraught relationship and the impact it had on young Mal’s budding career is his driving force throughout the film. (Need more reminders of that? The film supplies an endless parade of quick, constant flashbacks to help keep their father-son story top of mind.)
Kamal is “washed” by the time Jeremy (Harlow) arrives at his local gym during a pickup game. Jeremy is beyond crunchy — here’s a dude who shows up toting homemade juice cleanses, sporting a “Self Care Club” hoodie, and banging on about the power of meditation — but he’s also got his own demons, namely a pair of busted ACLs and a barely concealed pain pill problem. For both Kamal and Jeremy, basketball is the driving force of their lives, even if it’s also complicated nearly everything else they’ve got going on (like fracturing romantic relationships; “A Thousand and One” breakout star Teyana Taylor gets a small role as Mal’s wife Imani, and she absolutely shines).
They’re far more fun characters — and Harlow and Walls are far more interesting actors — when they finally team up to hustle local games in order to shore up their partnership and raise enough cash to enter a local 2-on-2 tournament that boasts a massive purse. While Calamatic’s film takes its own road there, the same predictable beats from Shelton’s original are firmly in place. Same story, different path. (This, funnily enough, is not its own knock on the film or the genre it’s part of, the sports comedy with a heart of gold can, and should be, some of the most rousing popular entertainment Hollywood can offer.)
But this isn’t particularly rousing. More frustrating is that the pieces are there: Calmatic’s flair (only really hitting its stride in the film’s final act, when the basketball action really ramps up), Harlow and Walls’ unexpected chemistry, and a story that genuinely seems interested in the well-being of its characters. It’s funny in fits and starts (Kamal’s wacky cousins, played by Vince Staples and Myles Bullock, are consistently amusing), clever enough about the way we talk about race among friends, and comforting in its predictability. But that overwrought, overwritten script and leaden pacing throughout its first two acts weighs everything down. This thing should be light on its feet, fleet and fast and fun. Instead, it drags down the court, taking plenty of shots, but never quite sinking any of them.
“White Men Can’t Jump” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, May 19.