Shelf Life: “White Men Can’t Jump”


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Looking at even the trailer for Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” it’s hard to believe there was a time when Woody Harrelson was not looked at as primarily a dramatic actor. Certainly, in the last ten or fifteen years he has cultivated an undeniable pedigree as an intense, thoughtful, and entertaining performer to watch. But coming off of TV’s “Cheers” in the late 1980s, Harrelson first ventured into films with a reputation for being a loveable dimwit, or at least an actor who could play one convincingly.

In 1992, when he began to migrate to leading roles in theatrical work, Harrelson made the shrewd decision to star opposite a similarly budding actor, Wesley Snipes, in the film “White Men Can’t Jump.” Its writer-director, Ron Shelton, was an established purveyor of sports-themed stories, particularly ones that danced on an edge between comedy and drama, and the project could theoretically showcase Harrelson’s acting chops without challenging audiences to look at him too much differently than they already knew him from his small-screen work. But was the film successful? And more immediately, does it still work today in all of the ways in which it intended? That’s what this week’s “Shelf Life” set out to determine.

The Facts

Released on March 27, 1992, “White Men Can’t Jump” was a modest but significant success at the box office, earning some $90 million in receipts and firmly establishing Harrelson as a star – on the rise, anyway. The film received only minor nods from critics groups, including a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Rosie Perez as Harrelson’s girlfriend Gloria, and currently maintains a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The success of the film not only led to bigger roles for Harrelson in films like “Indecent Proposal” and “Natural Born Killers,” but an eventual reunion with Snipes in the 1996 film “Money Train,” which was a critical and commercial failure.

What Still Works

The first 45 minutes of “White Men Can’t Jump” aren’t just terrific, they are the main if not only reason that the film ever earned affection from viewers. Harrelson and Snipes’ constant one-upmanship, as much on a personal level as a racial one, creates an invigorating, imminently watchable chemistry that propels the film forward towards deeper waters. Both Harrelson and Snipes do phenomenal work, being both convincing athletes and charismatic con men, and the rapport they create as actors (much less between their characters) forms one of the more remarkable on screen pairs possibly of all time.

Meanwhile, Rosie Perez manages to channel her force-of-nature personality into a character who’s not just palpably intelligent, but complex, interesting and sympathetic. While managing to be phenomenally sexy (some might say despite her Chihuahua ‘Rican accent), she infuses Gloria with believable substance, especially when she has to sort of acknowledge or observe the film’s underlying themes, and yet creates a credibly unpredictable companion for Harrelson’s bullheaded Billy. As she issues perhaps conventionally female-irrational demands of him (“I don’t want you to get me a glass of water, I want you to sympathize with my thirst”), she somehow avoids being a purely cliched, crazy-woman character, and makes us understand why the two of them are together – and why it’s so hard for her to give him up.

In terms of the basketball – both as a driving force and its cinematic depiction – Shelton gives the sport an immediacy and an energy that sustains the audience even after they’ve seen several games between the two protagonists, or between the two protagonists and their various opponents. Shelton makes it look fun, easy and most of all convincing, showing us not only that Harrelson and Snipes are playing ball themselves, but they’re actually good at it.

What Doesn’t Work

Almost everything after the first 45 minutes of the story feels like a slow and steady decline into redundancy and abrasiveness. Where the friction between Billy and Sidney kept the film alive and fresh in the opening scenes, it later feels too relentless and too acrimonious to be enjoyable, especially when, say, Billy continues to shit-talk their opponents before, during and after the big competition that leads into the final act. While that may have been the film’s point – there is a time when these “movie characters” become real people – it undermines our sympathies for both characters, especially Billy, which is later augmented not just by one bad choice, but a series of remarkably awful decisions. I think there’s three separate scenes in which Billy has to tell Gloria that he lost all of their money, or his money, or some nest egg of theirs that both had worked together to build, and at a certain point, the viewer tunes out on the possibility of him being redeemed.

Additionally, though there’s something admirable about Shelton’s determination to give both characters equal weight, or at least their own complete story, that choice does the film’s narrative momentum a great disservice: by the time the two of them reunite to play in the street ball tournament, the film feels like it should be winding down, and wrapping up some of the story strands it introduces. But there’s still Billy’s bad decision, his re-connection with Gloria via her appearance on “Jeopardy” (which inexplicably he never explains was his doing), the showdown with the “legends,” and the coda afterward. One might be able to chalk this up to the need to bring to fruition the film’s title – perhaps a studio exec was like, “why doesn’t this white man get to jump eventually?” – but this story doesn’t demand two hours to be told, and at that length there needs to be more. Especially since Shelton overplays his hand by having Gloria more or less explicitly state the subtext of the film, venture into a semiserious, self-reflective spiral for Billy, and then try to pull back out to re-engage in the more lighthearted tone of the first segment of the film.

The Verdict

“White Men Can’t Jump” was always a film I had problems with upon its original release, but a recent viewing only confirmed the legitimacy of those criticisms: Shelton engages in a sense of poetry with the subtext that its set-up cannot sustain, and when he tries to apply it to the actual story in a more serious way, it feels incongruous with what happens before, and then after when he’s trying to crowd-please with a charming finale. Overall, the film is flawed at best, featuring three great performances and even greater chemistry that is utilized (for a while) to incredible effect, but in a narrative that weighs too much by half and story that’s too long and convoluted to support it.

Leave your own thoughts on “White Men Can’t Jump” in the comments below.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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