They’re black and white instead of fat and thin, but Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson have the makings of a classic comedy team, the Laurel and Hardy of the half-court game. Graced with good-humored comic energy, they overcome sizable script problems and turn Ron Shelton’s “White Men Can’t Jump” into a sassy and profane urban fairy tale that finds laughs in some very clever places.
Shelton, an ex-athlete himself who wrote and directed the very successful “Bull Durham” about minor league baseball, is back (after a detour called “Blaze”) with a film that once again understands athletes from the inside out and demonstrates that the fringes of sport are where the most entertaining action is to be found.
“White Men” (citywide) focuses on pickup basketball, the archetypal city game played on dilapidated neighborhood courts by grown men who love it with a passion--and aren’t averse to hustling a few dollars on the side.
Billy Hoyle (Harrelson), the first man to show up on the court at action-heavy Venice Beach, isn’t much to look at. A stranger in town, with baggy shorts and T-shirt, droopy socks and a baseball cap, he has cultivated with consummate care the look of “a slow white geeky chump.”
Sidney Deane (Snipes), by contrast, is the picture of flash and dash down to the gold chain around his neck and the cyclist’s cap with snappily upturned brim. A Venice regular oozing with Muhammad Ali-type self-confidence, he allows himself to be drawn into a money game with Billy with predictable results.
Captivated against his will by Billy’s act, Sidney decides the two should team up and take advantage of the inner city’s dismissive disdain toward white players. Both men are adroit hustlers, used to living off what they make on the courts, and both have women in their lives--a wife (Tyra Ferrell) in Sidney’s case, a girlfriend (Rosie Perez) in Billy’s--who view what they do as a suspect way to make a living.
Watching the ups and downs of this unlikely pairing is the central attraction of “White Men,” a film that is most entertaining when its protagonists are on the court. It’s not only that the basketball action is expertly choreographed, photographed and edited, it’s that the ritualistic pregame dissing, the unkind and generally unprintable words about competitors’ sainted mothers and suspect ethnic background (Billy gets called everything from “Opie” and “Brady Bunch” to “Sasquatch butt”) deliver a heady taste of the kind of street humor and attitude that rarely makes it onto film.
And in Snipes and Harrelson, Shelton has found the odd couple perfectly suited to his script’s needs. Not only are they both good enough athletes to make the on-court action believable, but they are also two of the most out-and-out charming of actors, dripping with audience appeal as well as sweat. Watching them get in each other’s and everyone else’s face is a sport spectators will not tire of any time soon.
Which is a good thing, because, with one notable exception, whenever “White Men” (rated R for language and sensuality) leaves the game, it tends to lose its way. Though Shelton’s dialogue is dead-on, the film is filled with all manner of spurious crises both romantic and fiscal, as well as plot twists that are hollower than they need to be. As a result, it’s difficult to care very much about anything that happens off the court, and, just like fans of Laurel and Hardy, we sit through the uninspired plotting, marking time until the guys get to do their stuff again.
There is that one fine exception, however, and that is Perez as Billy’s girlfriend Gloria Clemente, a “Jeopardy!” junkie who sits home swilling vodka and memorizing the World Almanac against that any-day-now time when the game show will give her a call.
It’s a very appealing conceit, and it is safe to say that Perez plays it like no one else on the planet. A choreographer who made her first screen appearance dancing over the credits in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as well as playing his girlfriend, Perez has an almost indefinable screen persona and voice, sounding with her high-pitched squeal and wacky elocution like a barrio Betty Boop blended with a touch of Elmer Fudd.
This is an accent even Meryl Streep couldn’t duplicate, and to hear Gloria giving Billy a hilarious what-women-want lecture right out of Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand Me” is to feel in the presence of a true screen original. If there were more bits like hers, “White Men Can’t Jump” would do as well when the ball stops bouncing as it does when it’s in the air.
‘White Men Can’t Jump’
Wesley Snipes: Sidney Deane
Woody Harrelson: Billy Hoyle
Rosie Perez: Gloria Clemente
Tyra Ferrell: Rhoda Deane
Cylk Cozart: Robert
Released by 20th Century Fox. Director Ron Shelton. Producers Don Miller, David Lester. Executive producer Michele Rappaport. Screenplay Ron Shelton. Cinematographer Russell Boyd. Editor Paul Seydor. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Music Bennie Wallace. Production design Dennis Washington. Art director Roger Fortune. Set decorator Robert Benton. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and sensuality).