To get the question out of the way that is likely on every reader's mind, "Like Mike" is better than its cringe-inducing trailers suggest, and generally more tolerable than it has any right to be. That said, as the second basketball comedy in three weeks (after "Juwanna Mann
"), "Like Mike" is enormously similar in quality: amiable enough, but far too cliched and steadfastly generic to be worth recommending.
At the Chesterfield Group Home Orphanage, best friends Calvin Cambridge (Lil' Bow Wow), Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki), and Reg (Brenda Song) while away their days playing basketball and dreaming of one day being adopted. Now that they are either approaching or already in their teen years, their hopes of such diminish with each parent visit that leaves them neglected. When 13-year-old Calvin comes across a pair of used sneakers with the initials, "M.J.," written inside, he is convinced they were previously owned by Michael Jordan.
After being struck by lightning while trying to retrieve the shoes from an electrical line where a bully disposed of them, Calvin discovers, to his amazement, that wearing them really does make him play basketball "like Mike." His moves so impress the coach (Robert Forster) and manager (Eugene Levy) of the NBA's Los Angeles Knights that they sign him up to play on the team for the remainder of the season. As the team gradually rises to the top and Calvin strikes up a friendship with teammate Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut), he begins to wonder whether Tracey himself wouldn't be the ideal father figure for him.
Directed by John Schultz (1999's "Drive Me Crazy
"), "Like Mike" is so cluelessly naive and cornball that it acquires a certain modicum of charm out of its very innocence. Still, the sight of a bunch of kids being picked like puppies by visiting parents of the orphanage (do they still even call them 'orphanages' anymore?) is awfully hard to swallow, even for a fantasy-laden family pic. The slim plot is a paint-by-numbers affair (save for one development at the conclusion), but it dodges intolerability by having a somewhat zippy pace, a few cute moments, and less tedious basketball-playing sequences than one would expect from seeing the ads.
In his first major starring role, 14-year-old rap musician Lil' Bow Wow (2002's "All About the Benjamins
") isn't a trained thespian, and it shows. Still, he slides by comfortably in the role with enough charisma to overcome his performance shortcomings. As his teammate mentor Tracey Reynolds, who softens up to Calvin the more time they spend together, Morris Chestnut (1999's "The Best Man
") plays his part with a seriousness and authenticity that helps even out the more far-fetched aspects of the film. Jonathan Lipnicki may be getting older, but he is still almost as adorable as he was in 1996's "Jerry Maguire" and 1999's "Stuart Little
." Admittedly, his acting is akin to amateur-night at a honky-tonk karaoke bar, but he does have a sweetness about him. Finally, Crispin Glover (2000's "Charlie's Angels
") is a standout, wisely underplaying the potentially over-the-top part of the orphanage's greedy headmaster, Stan Bittleman.
If "Like Mike" is not a completely disposable film (children, especially young basketball fans, will likely eat it up), its unflinching predictability does get the best of it by the second half. Since it is blindingly obvious where everything is going, and the movie didn't generate a single laugh from me, all you can do is wait patiently while the threadbare story plays itself out. At 100 minutes, the movie could have certainly benefitted from having 15-20 minutes cut out of it. The only real reason for the existence of "Like Mike" is as a cinematic showcase for Lil' Bow Wow. While the film doesn't score, experience tells me that things could have been much, much worse.
©2002 by Dustin Putman