Sunday 9 May 2021

Movie Review: White Men Can't Jump (1992)

A basketball buddy movie, White Men Can't Jump features energetic streetball action but precious little else.

Basketball hustler Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) arrives in Los Angeles and heads to the Venice Beach outdoor courts. Billy uses his whiteness to fool other players into thinking he is useless, and he quickly gets the better of local showboater Syd Deane (Wesley Snipes).

But Billy is incompetent at managing money, and owes several thousand dollars to loan sharks. His girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez) can't keep him from losing whatever money they save. Syd suggests they team up to hustle larger amounts from the tougher parts of town, and they also enter an upcoming 2v2 tournament. The two men have to guard against each other and maintain a spiky camaraderie on and off the courts, always testing the limits of their evolving friendship.

Close to two hours of repetitive trash-talking gets tiresome, but writer-director Ron Shelton persists. White Men Can't Jump is a street level sports comedy-drama idea waiting for a plot, and offers little beyond the most basic buddy movie structure and familiar sports hustle cliches. The loan shark subplot is flimsy enough to blow away in the ocean breeze, and late-in-the-day dramas involving Gloria getting her shot on Jeopardy and a sudden crisis forcing Billy to choose between Syd and Gloria appear tacked to prolong the running time.

And so endless scenes showcase basketball players insulting each other and each other's mothers in a foul-mouthed extravaganza. The ear-to-the-ground banter initially registers as gritty, but the ideas quickly run out. Shelton has to lean heavily on stars Harrelson and Snipes, and they do their best to inject life into the off-the-court scenes. But the friendship between the two men remains stalled in macho needling and juvenile one-upmanship, men behaving like boys and wondering why their women are exasperated.

When everyone shuts up and plays basketball Shelton finally finds some beauty within the urban decay, slow-motion used to good effect to highlight slick moves and bodies in elegant motion. White men may or may not be able to jump, but men and women of all colours can make better movies than this.

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