White Men Can’t Jump is a lukewarm reprisal of a race-relations sports drama.
White Men Can’t Jump (2023) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on May 24, 2023
Rating 2 /5
Certain films feel very much of the era and don’t feel like they’d make a decent transition into modern movies. Look at a film like You People which tries to whip up a new race-highlighted comedy of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that ended up being a tone-deaf mess. By that same token, the new White Men Can’t Jump falls into similar trappings, despite its better intentions and gentle nature with its characters.
Much like the 1990s film, this sports dramedy follows two down-on-their-luck pick-up basketball players of different races. Kamal (Sinqua Walls) was a once-great player who fell hard after a temper on the court sent him so low that he’s working smaller jobs to make ends meet. He needs to make money quickly with concerns for his kid and his ailing father (Lance Reddick). Jeremy (Jack Harlow) is a new-age-sort guy with money issues that have hindered his romantic relationship with his aspiring rapper girlfriend. Alone, these two guys can barely keep their bank accounts above water. Together, they’ll be able to win a big game that can win them more money than they’ve ever had before.
The chemistry between Kamal and Jeremy is…not quite there. The film tries to give them some charming moments together, but the awkward topic of race always places a sour note on most of their exchanges. Jeremy can’t stop saying lingering liberal stumblings about how he thinks some people he plays against look like certain black celebrities. Though Jeremy does have a more serene take on keeping his mental state together, Kamal will reject Jeremy’s offers for meditation, stating that it’s more of a white people thing. While the learning from each other seems earnest, it proceeds through scenes that seem to try and fail at landing a decent joke, only delivering mild smirks between solid comradery.
The basketball scenes are decently shot, despite being diced up here and there. The back-and-forth that proceeds on the court is not half bad, presenting the characters at their most believable. The problem is that the stakes seem far lower when compared to the original film, in which mafia men were coming after the leads. In this modern retelling, the biggest problem is failing to pay the bills in a gig economy and Jeremy’s medical issue with his leg. While it’s certainly more relatable, there’s also a bitter realization that this situation is all too common and that the best one can hope for is a basketball game that will pay the bills on time and not end up in debt.
The film sometimes works in its means of trying to find love for its characters existing on the fringes of the LA basketball scene. The moments of romance and friendship feel genuine when the script is trying to push in an awkward racial moment or a goofy bit about gambling and drugs. For example, Kamal losing his delivery job because he got violent with a pushy fan is a decent dose of drama. That drama feels lessened by Kamal’s boss, who speaks openly about his failed drug-infused cupcake business. This joke returns again when Kamal is fired, and the boss believes he will be fired for admitting to his ill-thought hustle.
White Men Can’t Jump is a lukewarm reprisal of a race-relations sports drama. While it never becomes an aggressively mean-spirited take on modern-day racism, it doesn’t offer up much to root for amid its awkward balancing act between wealth-disparity drama and chummy street comedy. It’s very telling that the climax features Jeremey going back on his saying about his meditation will center you. Instead, he says basketball is the best therapy, where trash-talking and aggressive dunks are more fulfilling than being at peace with oneself. There’s some truth there, but it’s watered down amid basketball theatrics and passive observation on race relations.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.