Like Mike (2002) **
Directed by John Schultz. Screenplay, Michael Elliot, Jordan Moffet. Story, Mr. Elliot. Photography, Shawn Maurer. Editing, Peter Berger, John Pace. Production design, Arlan Jay Vetter. Music, Richard Gibbs. Cast: Lil' Bow Wow, Morris Chestnut, Jonathan Lipinski, Robert Forster, Crispin Glover, Eugene Levy, Brenda Song, Jesse Plemons, Julius Charles Ritter, Anne Meara, et al. A 20th Century Fox release. 100 minutes. PG
Not a very catchy title. Not as good as the old pro-Eisenhower slogan "I Like Ike."
The Mike in this contemporary feel-good fairytale is the unseen Michael Jordan. Rapper Lil' Bow Wow plays African-American Calvin Cambridge, a name which evokes religion, politics and culture--all absent in this picture. Or almost, since Calvin's fervor goes to basketball. He is 14, an orphan, only 4 1/2 feet tall (or short.) His institution is Catholic if we are to judge by kindly Sister Theresa (Anne Meara) the sole nun I remember seeing.
Calvin's two best buddies are an even younger and shorter boy and a pretty Asian-American girl. Against Calvin there's a group led by Ox, the taller, inevitable bully of youth movies.
When Calvin is given old basketball sneakers marked MJ, he concludes that they had belonged to a young Michael Jordan. Ox throws them upwards, they get stuck on a power line, Calvin retrieves them while it rains and thunders. Lightning, which comes in handy in certain movies (horror/magic/supernatural/ Frankenstein/Golem and such), hits the boy and the shoes. The youngster is miraculously transformed into a champion player.
At the Los Angeles Staples Center, shown over and over again and then some in a variant of product placement, Calvin, who is an ambulant candy-seller somehow connects (don't ask) with Mr. Wagner (Robert Foster) the Knights team's coach, who supplies him with tickets for a game. Our hero's turns out to have the winning number which, during a publicity stunt at half-time, qualifies the bearer to go one-on-one with star player Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut.) Would you believe that in this bizarre exhibition the kid creams the pro, by "flying" (in awkward trick photography)) repeatedly up to the hoop? That Calvin gets signed up by the NBA and becomes a "real" player? That the originally peeved Tracey will become, sort of, the youth's surrogate dad?
The slogan for Calvin seems to be "he's lean, he's mean, he's thirteen," which is OK by me, except that the literature about him says he is 14. He really ought to have been nicknamed "Magic" Cambridge, had that name not been already taken. Too bad, because magic is what the movie is all about. Marginally, it is also about greed, as, in an unconvincing and unnecessary scene the orphanage's director gets bribed by the team's manager. .
There's a clever detail, perhaps planned, perhaps fortuitous. The orphanage's director is first shown in his parked car playing chess with himself. We might surmise that chess players are more interested in brainy stuff than in money. This touch could be a red herring since the fellow does like money, or else this detail has no significance at all.
Later comes a pretty good non-fantasy. Tracey has been put in charge of Calvin. They share a ritzy hotel room. The adult explains to the wide-eyed kid that calling room service can get him any food he wishes--free. Tracy leaves to meet a groupie date. Later, returning to the room with a great looker of a girl, he is astounded at the kid's being there and cramping his (Tracey's) sexual style. This botches the sequence. Did he think that Calvin would have vanished? Nonetheless the sight of the recumbent boy's who has gorged on a huge number of vittles, the ruins of which litter all surfaces, is amusing.
Later yet, Tracey, still annoyed by this forced companionship, is finally reconciled with his charge via an old-fashioned device (see the old Shirley Temple movies.) As Calvin says his prayers he concludes with a series of "Bless X, bless Y and God bless Tracey." That does it. Tracey mellows instantly. Still, cliches and all it is pleasant going. But around minute 60, you can almost hear the makers wondering "Where do we go from here? What comes next?"
What comes is that this initially entertaining, warm fantasy morphs into a yarn that sags, turns soft-edged, resembles a melting Brie cheese, meanders, gets padded and becomes soporific. It is not enough to parade real-life basketball stars. And it is a far cry from the better flicks within the genre, not to mention the top two: the documentary "Hoop Dreams" which I appreciate without being influenced by the fact that Fred Marx, its writer, co-creator, co-editor and co-producer, has been both my friend and my student. My other favorite is the based-on-fact fiction "Hoosiers."
While Lil' Bow Wow is no miniature Laurence Olivier he is pretty good. In my book, the performer who stood out was Robert Forster. Allotted little screen time he conveyed much, economically and untheatrically. In April 2002 , at the Roger Ebert Festival of Overlooked Films, as the lead of the excellent "Diamond Men" (2000) Mr. Forster, an actors' actor, was superb. If there were Oscars for Best Minimalist Performances (in the best sense)he ought to win them.
I saw "Like Mike" at a matinee, with a very small audience of adults and thrice that number of pre-teen children, quiet except for some questions addressed to their elders. Childhood may be wonderfully accepting of anything that moves on a screen. Adulthood is not, or at least, should not be.