'White Men Can't Jump' examines lives of people on the rebound

August 21, 1992|By Nancy Spiller | Nancy Spiller,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

White Men Can't Jump

Fox Video (1992)

Director Ron Shelton once again succeeds in taking us someplace we might not otherwise care to go -- inside the world of low-grade sports. In "Bull Durham" it was minor league baseball, in "White Men Can't Jump," it's pickup street-league basketball. These are the boys who cadge for dollars on the neighborhood courts, hustling games to stay alive or supplement the chump-change from their day jobs.

And whether you're a sports fan or not, Mr. Shelton makes us care about these people. His characters are common folk with huge failings who somehow manage to pull through. Even though they are not particularly smart, they stick by their beliefs, and in so doing display an endearing courage. And believe me, it's not easy liking these street punks who dribble their lives away.

Woody Harrelson plays Billy Hoyle, a college hoop star on the run from thugs he owes money to. Moving from one seedy motel to the next with him is girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez), who spends her days cramming her head full of trivia in hopes of winning big on "Jeopardy!" Billy meets his match in Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes), a fast-talking black man with an attitude. Sidney is willing to cross the color line if it means he can make some money off the dumb-looking white dude. He's got a baby and a wife, Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell), who wants to move out of the ghetto and into a straight life that covers the bills.

Billy and Sidney reluctantly team up to make beautiful basketball together. Some of the film's most delightful moments are the on-court bickering and when the characters start philosophizing. Sidney expounds on how white people can listen to Jimi Hendrix, but they can't "hear" him. Between snaps of her gum, Gloria, who reads too much, says things like "Winning and losing is like one big organic globule from which one extracts what one needs." For the thick-headed Billy, thinking seems to be some kind of punishment. But his revenge comes when he finally can disprove Sidney's belief that "white men can't jump." What he loses is something else altogether.

Instead of building to one satisfying climax, the picture keeps stringing us along with yet another BIG game. Despite this, Mr. Shelton has captured a view of Los Angeles that's refreshingly original: the ugly concrete and neon landscape against which so many lives are lived on the rebound. Its darkly humorous view of the painfully sunny city is right up there with those of "Straight Time" and "All Night Long."

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