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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…