"White Men Can't Jump," which celebrates the game of pick-up basketball, is itself like a game of pick-up basketball: it's intense, raggedy and explosive, now and then yielding moments of sheer gravity-defying grace, yet just as capable of producing air balls and pratfalls.
The movie plays a little too glibly with racial stereotypes, for my taste: it begins with the postulation that basketball, in the inner city, has become entirely the property of African Americans and thus when an Anglo American from Louisiana bumbles onto the court, it is a given that he will be a dodo. Of course, the secret of the movie is that dodo-boy has a microwave jump shot, moves through traffic like a laser through butter, but most importantly has deciphered the inner circuity of the game: he knows when to stand and when to cut, and he can anticipate his opponents' moves magically or shake free for a soft one off the backboard.
Woody Harrelson has this role, and he brings all the right stuff to it. He's one of those secretly beautiful American boy-men who looks so pitifully harmless until he moves, and then he's all business. As the movie has it, he hustles the Venice playground's ace -- Wesley Snipes -- and walks away $62 richer. But Snipes, who's as smart as Harrelson is dumb, sees bigger money ahead; he knows that he can utilize Harrelson's chump image and champ moves in a series of playground scams spread through the mean streets of Los Angeles. And thus these defiant ones begin to hustle.
The movie has its ups and downs and it's too long and convoluted. Both partners have complex backgrounds: Snipes is trying to raise the money to move his wife and kid out of a dumpy apartment, and Harrelson is on the run from Cajun gamblers whom he shorted in a deal. Plus his girlfriend is trying desperately to get on "Jeopardy," and spends her days memorizing trivia from an almanac. Some of this is funny, some of it isn't.
In some sense, it's a celebration of the melting pot of America city life; we're far from the boring burbs, in a seedy hood where black and white mingle and clash and yet, for all their apparent hostility, secretly enjoy each other. They have bonded in the brotherhood of the bouncing ball. They know, ultimately, that it doesn't matter if you're white or black, but whether or not the ball goes through the hoop. They know, in short, that the ball is colorblind.
Ron Shelton wrote and directed "Bull Durham" and he really understands jock culture. The basketball sequences are the most magical in the film -- both Harrelson and Snipes can play -- but more to the point, he also has a great gift for evoking the needling hostility of athletes, the way the games aren't just about talent but about ego, will, self-esteem.
Too bad the movie is so unsure of where it's going. It can't decide if it's a black-white movie, a man-woman movie, a straight-hustler movie or a "Jeopardy" movie. (It's a very good "Jeopardy" movie, by the way.) In the end, it peters out. I hate basketball games that end on missed shots, no matter the teams involved, and that's what "White Men Can't Jump" feels like.
'White Men Can't Jump'
Starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox.
** 1/2 .