Probably the single most effective lesson in gambling addiction marketed as a Comedy in the history of cinema.
That’s right, Ron Shelton’s shamelessly titled White Men Can’t Jump may fall into the era of American cinema where diverse appreciation of global culture blossomed. An era that has since seen Carmen Sandiego, Austin Powers, Tamagotchi, and Furby celebrated posthumously. But Shelton’s picture is so much more than tiedyed baseball caps, baggy vests and endless basketball hustles.
Rarely did such an eclectic pastiche of 90s stereotypes get thrown together and in hindsight only Wayne’s World rivals it for the feel good retro factor. But there is a wholly different aura about White Men Can’t Jump.
Billy Hoyle and Gloria Clemente are hiding out in California, on the run from the Stucci brothers, a couple of low-brow debt collectors from Chicago. While Billy ventures out to hustle the local courts in an attempt to rustle up the money they owe, Gloria stays at home brushing up on all the knowledge in the universe on the off chance that Jeopardy! ever call her.
At once a ludicrous and saddening situation. With Billy stuck in adolescence throwing everything he has into dragging out his ‘almost made it’ moment his Basketball hustle is an idealist’s dream that becomes a permanent fixture in his day to day life. While Gloria lives for a quick-money scheme, studying for Jeopardy! and allowing alcoholism to sink it’s meathooks further into her mundane life.
It all sounds a little heavy but this is the reality of Shelton’s vision. Basketball banter and gambling take precedent over exposition and action. What basketball we do see is nullified by the mind numbingly extensive dissing vocabulary of Sidney Deane, Billy’s hustling rival and complete opposite.
Wesley Snipes is irreplaceable as Sidney and while opposite in character, is the perfect match for Woody Harrelson’s Billy. Mature and responsible Sidney has a far greater understanding about the world but never panders to Billy’s naïvety and exploits it on more than one occasion. But there is still a sense of brotherly love.
Not in the racial stereotype sense nor in the spirit of the shamelessly titled, ‘Brotherhood Tournament’, encouraging an acceptance of racial integration: which on a side note gets funnier and more surreal as it goes on considering the LA Riots that occurred a month after the film was released. But instead in the actual sense that Sidney wants to help Billy.
While Gloria is forced from seedy motel to beaten bed everytime Billy loses their money she becomes his life chaperone, guiding him but never forcing his hand. Until once more is once too many. No more excuses can be made for Billy’s glaring, yet unnattended gambling addiction. “He’s no good with money” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
What makes it worse for Billy is Sidney’s false guardianship. On more than one occassion I find myself dumbfounded by Sidney’s constant exploitation of Billy’s addiction, despite his awareness of the issue. It’s a sad tale that confounds and conflicts the traditional sports movie tropes. There is no underdog, no winners or losers. For, as Gloria elquently puts it,
“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.”
One would like to think that Billy learnt a lesson in the end. But without Gloria to pick him up when he comes crawling back and Sidney’s unreliable track record it’s anyone’s guess where Billy ended up. Probably hustling on some court to clear some debt that lingers over him like the addiction that caused it.
Of course White Men Can’t Jump has more to it than a sad gambling addiction. In fact much can be said, and has been, about Shelton’s approach to racial politics of the era. About the “hip-hop/pop style and leftover 1980s Day-glo” outfits and attitudes.
But the one theme that lingers like a sneaker reeking of stale sweat after a day’s hustle is the sad undercurrent that permeates an otherwise unruly off beat comedy.
The big characters, complex attitudes and flickering hopes are all set for a reality check that doesn’t set them up for the alley-oop they deserve. However, White Men Can’t Jump is not all doom and gloom. For what it’s worth the opening 20 minutes are as slick as Sidney’s outfits and one of the best you’ll ever see.
Set to the sound of an ageing street wise accapella Venice Beach troupe Billy strolls in the morning daylight like a kid on the first day of his summer holiday. Snap to Sidney hustling the courts and Shelton wastes no time establising his protagonists with back and forth banter complementing the jovial atmosphere. A little competition breaks out and the viewer is soon reminded of the tight financial situation both men find themselves in. Except for Sidney it’s his life, for Billy money is a symbol attached to his ego.
Ron Shelton’s Brilliant sporting banter shines in White Men Can’t Jump but he has something far more important to say in an otherwise superb off beat comedy that never quite reaches the heights of the saddening undercurrent.
The lack of responsibility shown by Billy is disconcerting and you’d be hard pressed to find a viewer who sits through Shelton’s ostensible comedy with a smile throughout. It is undeniably one of the most important films of the 90s.
White Men Can’t Jump may just be the most brutal lesson in gambling addiction to ever grace our screens. It also has the raddest flair and foods beginning with Q.
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~ White men can jump ~