White Men Can't Jump, but they sure can be in bad remakes
Ron Shelton’s 1992 comedy White Men Can’t Jump is a stone-cold classic. It’s got three movie stars — Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, and Woody Harrelson — at the top of their game. It’s a funny film, devoting long stretches to effortless hangout scenes on Venice Beach basketball courts, where the characters talk endless shit while also playing some killer hoops. And it’s a layered character drama, where racial tension is one of several layers in a story about hustlers and trust.
The 2023 remake of White Men Can’t Jump, directed by Calmatic,is a much simpler comeback story. Kamal Allen (Sinqua Walls) was a former basketball prodigy whose college ball prospects were dashed when he got into a brawl and landed in jail. Ten years later, Kamal balances his time between his job as a delivery driver, his girlfriend Imani (Teyana Taylor) and their kid, and pick-up ball at his high school gym.
This is where he meets Jeremy (noted white rapper Jack Harlow), a guy with no job but a dozen side hustles, a juice-cleanse fixation, and a personal style best described as Instagram Hippie.
Jeremy loves basketball. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of the NBA and college ball, and in spite of surgeries to repair two torn ACLs that still cause him pain, he still believes there’s a future for him somewhere in the game. (Hence the juice cleanses.) Jeremy is also really damn annoying, and his inability to ever carry himself as a serious person, combined with his killer shot, makes him an unlikely ringer on the court. Before long, Kamal teams up with him to play pickup games for money.
Working from a script by Kenya Barris and Doug Hall, the 2023 White Men Can’t Jump is a remake in name only, a gut renovation where someone decided the “renovation” part wasn’t necessary. The result is a toothless film, a generic story where a would-be great derailed by rage learns something from his pain-in-the-ass white teammate, who reciprocates by learning to get serious about a thing or two in life.
Mistaking style for substance, the 2023 White Men Can’t Jump focuses squarely on basketball and lets its characters recede into near-nothingness. There is no hustle to its characters’ hustle: They simply place bets and play pickup against people they think they can beat. The risks that come with ripping people off — something the original film leveraged to give its story a sense of danger and stakes — are nonexistent in the new film.
Kamal and Jeremy frankly can’t hold a candle to Sidney and Billy from the 1992 original. They come across like Jack Harlow’s blue-eyed stare: lovely on the court, but empty between the ears. Their romantic subplots are sitcom-dad fare where they briefly put basketball over the people they care about, a far cry from the deft way the source material used its women as foils to men’s efforts to get ahead and skip the line with nothing but charisma and a basketball.
The strangest decision in White Men Can’t Jump lies in Jeremy’s torn ACLs. It’s a character trait that mostly exists to make the film’s title literal: Jeremy, the eponymous white man, simply cannot jump. Except he can, when the movie calls for it. Like a lot of ideas the film’s script sets forth, the subsequent plot places little faith in it. Jokes about how it’s no longer remarkable that a white boy can ball are plentiful, as if that were the sole point of the original movie (which, by the way, premiered the year Larry Bird, already crowned as one of basketball’s greats, retired).
It’s nearly impossible to discern a sincere appreciation for the original White Men Can’t Jump in the new one. Scenes are reinterpreted and references are made, but the remake isn’t built to do what the original did — which is dig into one particular white man and his relationship with a very specific character from a different racial background. Every conversation from the original film is shot through with meaning: You can study them the way a good ball player studies an opponent’s game. The new film trades all that for Jack Harlow pathetically mumbling about how there are some jokes he can’t make because he’s a white guy, and expects the audience to laugh at this self-awareness as if they haven’t heard it before.
The original White Men Can’t Jump is well worth seeing 31 years later, and that specificity is why. It lingers on conversations and lets entire basketball games play out. When you see Wesley Snipes’ portrayal of Sidney shift from scene to scene — he’s a different man in front of Billy, in front of his wife, Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell), and away from both of them — a complete portrait of a complicated person emerges as he sweats on the court.
The same holds true for Billy, whom Harrelson plays as someone who isn’t necessarily racially enlightened, but is aware of the dynamics at play in spaces that are not his. For him, basketball is a direct expression of a deeper pride that keeps him holding back as his girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), overtly tries to communicate with him.
The new White Men Can’t Jump will likely struggle to linger in anyone’s head the day after they watch it. Every character interaction is straightforward, every motivation and foible is stated out loud. Every joke is delivered for the camera, not the characters. The result is a film that leaves viewers with virtually nothing to think about. Maybe in another 31 years, someone will try again.
The new White Men Can’t Jump is now streaming on Hulu. The OG 1992 version is on Hulu, is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms, and is streaming free with ads on the Roku Channel.