Last year we celebrated the 25th birthday of 'White Men Can't Jump.' Today it turns 26, and we're still celebrating.
One of the worst things about Hollywood is the impenetrable and unchanging idea of what makes a "good" movie. I blame all the attention we give the Academy Awards, which do a fine job honoring important and ground-breaking films, but completely ignore the most entertaining.
That's not a complaint about the Oscars. They exist so that the self-important can have their feelings validated. It's a complaint about a cultural zeitgeist that doesn't let movies that are fun rise to the top of the heap.
That's how a flick like White Men Can't Jump ends up a cult classic, instead of a straight-up classic. Ron Shelton's 1992 basketball buddy flick, which stars Woody Harrelson as the aw-shucks white boy Billy Hoyle and Wesley Snipes as streetwise hustler Sidney Deane, is quite clearly not an Oscar movie.
It's not heavy enough, there are too many laughs and it's about a sport that isn't boxing, the only athletic pursuit the Academy has deemed worthy of recognition.
Still, if you go back to a list of movies that came out in 1992, you'd be hard pressed to find one that's more entertaining and re-watchable that WMCJ. Credit for this belongs largely to three people.
The first is writer Ron Shelton, who's script is brimming with highly-quotable, bracingly authentic dialogue. The street ball scenes feel real becuase the players are talking to each other the way real guys would talk to each other on the court. If fact, some of is just guys talking to each other on the court.
As Kadeem Hardison, who plays Sidney's friend Junior, told Grantland, he collected "yo momma" jokes from friends in hopes of squeezing them into the movie.
"Ron didn’t let me keep my favorite one, which I had gotten from Biz Markie. I tried. I did it again and again. It was, 'Your momma so nasty, she keeps ice in her panties to keep her crabs fresh,'" he said.
That line would have been right at home. The final cut of WMCJ is full of unique lines that are so damn weird, people are still saying them 25 years later ("Ain't no thing but a chicken wing on a string from Burger King").
That's a point that was not lost on the late, great Roger Ebert, who wrote in his original review, "The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie."
Whatever credit Shelton doesn't get for WMCJ's charm belongs to its two leads. Harrelson and Snipes exude charisma when they're on screen together. The friendship between the two characters is the driving force of the whole movie and compelling enough to make you forget some of the more unnecessary plot points (the Stucci brothers) and the hacky lessons ("Winning and losing is all one big organic globule from which one extracts what one needs.").
It makes sense that Billy and Sidney would be friends, even with all the ways they're different, because neither of them wants to grow up. For both, a love of basketball and refusal to admit defeat is hampering relationships.
The film's willingness to dig deeper than the comedy portray of life on the economic fringes is what makes WMCJ more than a schlocky sports movie and one that deserves to be more than a cult classic.
Maybe it'll get the recognition it deserves when the re-make hits.