White Men Can't Jump (1992)
August 14, 2022 5:09 PM - Subscribe

Black and white basketball hustlers join forces to double their chances of winning money on the street courts and in a basketball tournament.

Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) is a white basketball hustler who banks on black players underestimating his skills on the court. When he pulls one over on Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes), his victim sees a lucrative opportunity, and they become partners in the con game, plying their trade across the courts of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Billy has to keep one step ahead of mobsters, to whom he owes money, while staying on the good side of his "Jeopardy!"-obsessed, motormouth wife (Rosie Perez).

Wayne Broadway: Where White Men Can’t Jump fails to make any enlightening point concerning race, it does an amazing job highlighting male hypocrisy.

Early in the film, Perez’ Gloria gets angry with Billy when he grabs her a glass of water after she says her mouth is dry. Confused as to why she’s upset, Billy asks what the problem is. Gloria explains that when she says she’s thirsty, she’s simply telling him how she feels; she’s looking for communication rather than a quick fix. “Men always make the mistake of thinking they can solve a woman’s problem,” she says, “it makes them feel omnipotent.”

Straight men’s strange ways are what the film explores best. In one scene, Billy is nearly beaten or shot, or both, by Sidney’s friends, but the tension deflates by the men noticing a great basketball game on TV. Elsewhere, even after Gloria helps Billy see Sidney has hustled him, Billy refuses to confront him, as “Men’s Rules” require that one never condescend to ask for money, even when that money is key to saving your life.

By the end of the film, when Gloria leaves Billy, this time for good, Sidney offers this advice: “‘Listen to the woman.’”

Is there a chance that this may be the product of a “Happy wife, happy life” brand of machismo? It’s possible. And yet, the film breaks our heart when we see Gloria walk away, finally conscious that Billy will always be looking for the next hustle, the next gamble, regardless of whatever sound advice she can give him.

Desson Howe: "White Men Can't Jump" is about the sweaty joy of stuffing hoops, psyching out your opponent and ruling the neighborhood basketball court. For the most part, it's a provocative one-on-one between racial opposites Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

Their relationship -- or perhaps, their ongoing collision -- is the best part of the movie. Loudmouthed, strutting Snipes rules his asphalt court on Venice Beach. He playfully insults his fellows and exaggerates his manliness. There is no meaner, finer player -- in his own mind. Along comes goofy Harrelson. He wears baggy Bermuda shorts. He wears his baseball cap backwards. He's also very white.

When he challenges Snipes to a best-of-five shooting match, it becomes more than just basketball. In writer/director Ron Shelton's able hands, the duel matters like world war. It matters to us, too. When its outcome is over, it's an eye-opener for both parties.

Janet Maslin: Since "White Men Can't Jump" has no particular place to go, it concentrates on motor-mouthed banter, an area in which Mr. Shelton has considerable expertise. The dialogue is fast, furious and often overlapping, and the less sense it makes, the better. ("You can put a cat in the oven, but that don't make it a biscuit." "The mustard is off the hot dog, you big corn-fed mule, you.") Scattered amid all this hot air are apparently more serious attempts at folk wisdom, since the screenplay is not shy about repeating its favorite homilies. As with "Bull Durham," it's best to take each one lightly (like the idea that winning and losing are "all one big organic globule") and then move on.

The terrifically confident Mr. Snipes gives a funny, knowing performance with a lot of physical verve. And Mr. Harrelson (of "Cheers") further perfects the art of appearing utterly without guile. Their comic timing together shapes the film's raucous wit, and their basketball playing looks creditable, too. Ms. Perez, a tiny firecracker of an actress, avoids the cuteness in Gloria's eccentricities and turns her "Jeopardy" break into an epiphany the whole audience can share. This film proves, among other things, that a person who thinks Babe Ruth was a basketball player may be nobody's fool.

posted by Carillon (10 comments total)
“All I care about is getting out of the Vista View apartments, because there ain't no 'vista', there ain't no "view", and there certainly ain't no vista of no view.”
posted by Ideefixe at 6:26 PM on August 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Wesley Snipes showcase! He's actually underrated. I hope they let him cameo in the new Blade movie.

Definitely hope to see Mo' Better Blues as part of this run.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:45 PM on August 14, 2022

The jeopardy scene is one of my favorites, I love the whole conceit in the film. And I'll have to check Mo' Better Blues out first!
posted by Carillon at 7:08 PM on August 14, 2022

I always thought it was s shame that Wesley Snipes went the action hero route.

He's got some pretty good comedic chops in this and To Wong Foo.
Even Demolition Man lets him chew the scenery in a wonderful way.
posted by madajb at 11:38 PM on August 14, 2022

Wesley Snipes showcase!

Carillon seems to be running a Snipes-a-thon in Fanfare currently. This is at least the fourth film this week. Long may it continue!
posted by biffa at 1:35 AM on August 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Ideedixe, I love this film and that is also the first line that comes to mind when I think of it.
posted by biffa at 1:36 AM on August 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

I love this movie for a lot of reasons, but mainly because there aren't many movies willing to set a character up with a clearly mal-adaptive personality/strategy for life, and then watch them completely fail to overcome it. There's only a few modern narratives out there that play out that plotline, much less in competitive sports context.
posted by Ipsifendus at 6:34 AM on August 15, 2022

Also requesting New Jack City, which I've been meaning to rewatch since I posted one of Mario Van Peebles' dad Melvin's films.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:37 AM on August 15, 2022

When a friend had a watch party for his Jeopardy appearance, we were asked to bring Jeopardy-themed food items for the potluck. I brought a quiche containing quince.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:57 AM on August 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

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