As a guest on The Rich Eisen Show, writer/director Ron Shelton was asked what so frequently draws him to making films centered around sports and characters who are incredible talents at any particular game. “Sports are like modern day westerns,” Shelton claimed, “and you can’t make westerns anymore.” He went on to say that you could assert that there is a universality to the language in sports. We understand the dynamics of a good athlete, the love interest, a hotshot rookie, and we understand immediately when dropped into any kind of competitive sports setting, at least the goals of said sport on a surface, rudimentary level. Shelton’s job, he adds, is to fill in the blanks; decorate the story with interesting character motivations, philosophical dialog, and heartfelt musings that make you see beyond all those obvious conceits into something that can be admired for years down the road. He’s the one to do it: just look at how many times Bull Durham and Tin Cup play on TV in a single month.
In White Men Can’t Jump — Shelton’s third directorial effort after his breakout Bull Durham and his unsung sophomore effort Blaze — just as obvious as the nature of competitive, pickup basketball are the social and racial dynamics of a white man like Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) crossing a group of streetballers in an attempt to hustle them at their own game. Billy is a former basketball player at Tulane, now living in California, hitting courts all over his area, letting potential opponents assume his weaknesses simply from his skin color before getting them to cough up big money. After a local talent named Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) becomes Billy’s victim twice over, the two make an informal agreement to use their prowess to hustle collaboratively, maximizing their profits and upping their chances to win.
Back home, Billy lives with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), who has her own hoop-dreams of being a contestant on Jeopardy!. Every night she swallows as much useless information (IE: foods that start with the letter “q”) as she possibly can in hopes of one day standing on the same set as Alex Trebek. Billy, on the other hand, is looking to keep his head above water, as he’s on the run from local mobsters. Meanwhile, Sidney lives with his wife, Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell), in the dubiously named Vista View Apartments. “All I care about is getting out of the Vista View apartments,” Rhonda tells Gloria in one scene, “because there ain’t no ‘vista,’ there ain’t no ‘view,’ and there certainly ain’t no vista of no view.” Nothing outright suggests that both Billy and Sidney are keen on giving up their hustling ways, however. They’ll get to a place of safety and comfort before gambling it all away in what could be called the hustler’s circle of life.
Just like Bull Durham and Tin Cup, White Men Can’t Jump is a nimble and smart movie thanks to Ron Shelton’s exceptional handling of the dialog. Once again, he recognizes that he’ll never be able to capture the jump-shots, the buzzer-beaters, and the on-court camaraderie as well as primetime Television. What he can do is show you the lives of the individuals that we see playing one-on-one, knockout, or Horse for petty cash on courts across America. He can detail their motives, their lives, their rides home after a big win or a crushing loss they’ll soon have to explain to their spouses. And Shelton does so, once again, with an ear for lyrical dialog.
Consider how deft he is handling one scene between Billy and Gloria as they are getting ready for bed. “I’m thirsty,” Gloria tells Billy, who proceeds to rise and bring her a glass of water. That’s not the response she was looking for, however. “When I say I’m thirsty, it doesn’t mean I want you to get me a glass of water,” Gloria tells him. “Men always think they can solve a womans’ problems; it makes ’em feel omnipotent. When I say I’m thirsty, I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, ‘Gloria, I too know what it’s like to be thirsty, I too have had a dry mouth.'” She further elaborates at his suggestion that they “screw” by saying that “screwing” is for carpenters and that she prefers to make love or f***. Out of options, Billy splashes the glass of water on her. There’s a fearless confidence in Shelton’s way of articulating this kind of banter between lovers, in a way that’s both optimistically literate and unmistakably human. Why can’t we say what we mean and mean what we say?
White Men Can’t Jump is littered with many tight and deceptively meaningful observations about the world of sports, fast cash, and love, far too many to name in this review. It’s more fun to experience them first-hand anyways, and indulge in the rhythmic conversations and spunky aesthetics that are so shamelessly nineties. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are textbook in what you want from a “buddy” film, so to speak, or a film that often has them within arm’s reach of achieving the mutually acceptable term “buddies” to describe their friendship. Rosie Perez, who also had memorable supporting roles in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the Nicholas Cage romantic comedy It Could Happen to You, is also quite good; equal parts scrappy and affectionate. Fueled with the dialog of Shelton, you’d be hardpressed to find a misstep in the trio of performers, as they’re all so confident and full of energy throughout.
White Men Can’t Jump is a rousing good-time as it overwhelmingly succeeds in filling an audience’s desire for sports drama, romantic drama, great, conversation-driven comedy, and engaging performances. Even if you unpack some of the film’s deepest points of subtext, I still feel a lot can be summarized by one line Billy utters after losing a game of two-on-two alongside Sidney. “It’s nobody’s fault, sometimes the ball don’t go in,” he simply states, even as he’s lost it all.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell, and Cylk Cozart. Directed by: Ron Shelton.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!