White Men Can’t Jump, which was first released in 1992, has gotten the remake treatment. It isn’t the first film, or the last, from the last 50 years to be adapted for modern audiences. Nostalgia has dominated the public consciousness, or so the studios say. So, let’s picture this: You want to watch White Men Can’t Jump, and there are now two versions on Hulu with 2023 remake, which was directed by Calmatic from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Doug Hall. The trend says that the choice is to watch the new one, but is that the right one?
The film follows two former NBA hopefuls, Kamal Allen (Sinqua Walls) and Jeremy (Jack Harlow). Kamal makes ends meet with a job as a delivery man to provide for his wife, Imani (Teyana Taylor), a hairdresser dreaming of opening a salon, and their son, Drew (Aiden Shute). Kamal has lost his passion for basketball but still plays pick-up ball. Meanwhile, Jeremy is an eccentric white man who trains young basketball players and has a side business for a homemade detox cleanse. He lives with his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier), a talented choreographer who cannot advance in her career due to financial restraints. Jeremy and Kamal meet when the former instigates a bet, which sets off a chain reaction leading to the two working a hustle together around the streetball scene in Los Angeles. The goal is the large cash prize in a two-on-two tournament.
The remake falls short as a comedy. A handful of zingers are made funny by a likable, well-cast ensemble but the script lacks the whip-smart, creative flair of the original. While certain adjustments were made to remove the insensitivity prevalent in 90s cinema, Barris and Hall’s script is stilted and toothless. The dialogue is perfunctory and lacking in personality. One particular moment distills the stark difference between the new script and Ron Shelton’s original. After Sidney and Billy (Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, respectively) successfully pull off their first hustle together in the original film, the two bicker about Jimi Hendrix. Sidney attempts to claim Hendrix for the Black community, while Billy and Gloria, who has tagged along, humble him. The scene is a layered text highlighting the dynamic between Sidney and Billy, foreshadowing the fate of Billy and Gloria’s relationship. The witty banter, the racial politics, and the genuinely funny physical comedy from Snipes perfectly encapsulates the film’s 90s setting. The 2023 version takes a similar conversation and distills it into a brief interaction where Jeremy has some unfunny jokes teasing Kamal for liking Ed Sheeran. There is no clever banter, insight into their personalities, or physical comedy. It’s just more of what you expect from the writers and creator of the Black-ish TV franchise.
While the movie isn’t as humorous as the original, it has its moments. Vince Staples and Myles Bullock are standouts. The two have a natural banter that ostensibly refers to the crew Wesley Snipes’ Sidney ran with in the original. The movie is more or less the same, but Barris and Hall’s writing gets scarily close to exhausting, as the dialogue neither offers any refreshing takes on modern pop culture nor does it build up the friendship between Jeremy and Kamal. A point in their favor comes from their writing being conscious of the stereotypes that informed the original, but Barris proves yet again that his work lacks genuine humor and therein lies this movie’s downfall.
Further exasperating the lack of fun is the film’s drama. The 1992 movie had dramatic moments but was ultimately a comedy. This one has two competing stories, the one with Kamal regaining his love of basketball after feeling like a failure to his father Benji (Lance Reddick), who also suffers from MS. The other is Jeremy’s inability to overcome the fact that he is too injured to return to basketball as a profession. These men’s struggles also bleed into their respective relationships, with Kamal’s wife Imani having to pick up the emotional and financial burden in their relationship and Tatiana in a similar position, only she has the added struggle of observing Jeremy’s reliance on pain medication and obsession with healing his body. As with many remakes, the great trap is complicating things as if simplicity isn’t a virtue. The emotional nuances of the characters’ lives are valuable, but the movie can’t balance the two.
Speaking of balance, Snipes and Harrelson were a dynamic duo, with Snipes being the fiery, bombastic one and Harrelson the cool, smooth operator. Jeremy and Kamal are demonstrably less interesting. For one, Kamal is no Sidney, as Barris and Hall trade in Sidney’s bravado and comically over-the-top theatrics for a somber archetype of an emotionally repressed Black man. Jeremy is a lot like Billy but lacks the edge that Harrelson afforded him. However, due to the character’s nature and his eccentricity, Harlow is given more room to be entertaining. Walls is a great actor, but the material doesn’t allow him to be as memorable as his 1992 counterpart. It feels almost deliberate having Kamal be so subdued as it’s the only way to let Harlow’s Jeremy shine.
The remake seems like a cash grab, a vehicle to launch Harlow into the acting world. As white men are often jeered for stepping into the predominantly Black-dominated hip-hop world, White Men Can’t Jump allows Harlow to play into what he goes through as the titular white man of the film. And since this is his acting debut, he needs to be good — and he is. Harlow handles Jeremy’s aloofness well and effectively switches it up when he needs to portray Jeremy’s more cunning side and charming geekiness. Essentially, Harlow hits all the right notes and is a natural at it, but Harrelson’s shadow looms large. Jeremy doesn’t stray too far from Billy, so Harlow comes across as a flattering imitation of Billy.
The changes to the characters continue, however, as Barris and Hall eradicate the Gloria role. Teyana Taylor’s Imani, for better or worse, is the modern version of Sidney’s wife, Rhonda. A voice of reason who acts as motivation for her husband. Harrier’s Tatiana is a drastically miscast, uninteresting, and deflated version of Gloria. In the 1992 film, Gloria (Rosie Perez) is a whole character with a perspective affected by Billy’s choices. Perez and Harrelson’s chemistry is explosive, and near-identical scenes recreated by Harrier and Harlow are almost laughable for how little chemistry the two have. Harrier has the further misfortune of playing a character that has no presence in the story. It is criminal for this screenplay to even entertain keeping the role of Tatiana since she is nothing more than a sounding board for Jeremy.
Technically speaking, White Men Can’t Jump is fine. There is nothing particularly extravagant with Calmatic’s directing. The transitions from one scene to another don’t flow as well as in the original film, but there are some decent camera movements. Both films use the Los Angeles backdrop wonderfully, as its vibrancy remains steadfast. The production design and costuming are joyous and effectively tie the past and present without losing sight of modern aesthetics and cultural preferences. However, Calmatic once again directed a remake that stuck to the basic outline of the original but failed to recapture the magic. The story is bloated and uneven. The drama feels undercooked, and the characters barely escape one-dimensionality. White Men Can’t Jump is ultimately failed by the inadequacies of its creative team, as it is neither funny enough to justify its existence nor poignant enough to warrant diminishing the Black lead.
White Men Can’t Jump is now streaming on Hulu. The movie is 101 minutes long and rated R for strong language and drug use.