Billy and Sydney think they're the best basketball hustlers in town, so when they join forces, nothing can stop them, except each other. To add to their problems, Billy owes money and is being chased by a pair of gangster types.
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I am 6 '4 tall and I am white. And I can't jump and dunk a basketball. Can't do it. And I've tried plenty of times and it's just not going to happen.
Ron Shelton, the man who brought us what is perhaps the greatest sports film of all-time in Bull Durham, directed and wrote White Men Can't Jump. A film that is pretty damn good after a 2nd viewing. I wasn't expecting a film this good actually.
The theme of White Can Men Can't Jump can be summed up in the dialogue Rosie Perez (playing Woody's girlfriend) gives at the halfway point in the film:
"When you win, sometimes it really means you lost. And when you lose, sometimes it really means you win. And sometimes when you lose or win it's really just a tie."
That sounds like a riddle and it is. The secret of life is in that phrase. Because it's not what's really there that's important but what's going to happen after that event takes place is what the real result is. And if you're paying attention, when the boys win in White Men Can't Jump they actually lose and when they lose they actually win because of what actions they had to take after they lost. And when they won (usually by scamming others), nothing good ever comes from it.
So in reality, White Men Can't Jump is almost the anti-sports film. There is no big game at the end where everything wraps up and everyone is happy. In actuality there final victory will cost both of the characters a great deal. They are both basketball junkies who are not able to move on with their lives and actually grow up. And each time they score and win, it's almost like them doing hard drugs because they both get farther away from actually moving on with their lives.
Ron Shelton is a very smart screenwriter. His humor has many levels to it. Yes, it's funny and there are some classic lines in White Men Can't Jump. The film gave the birth to the 'mother joke' as I felt it head on in the locker rooms in high school with my football teammates. 1992 became the year of who can tell the best mother joke. And this film was the reason why. But there is an underlying sadness with these jokes because they are told by the guys in an attempt to get closer OR to antagonize each other. Perhaps a bit of both as that's how men like this express themselves.
So while the TONE of White Men Can't Jump is comedic, this is really a drama movie about Peter Pan adults who want to cling onto their past basketball career as they always think about 'what if'. What if I actually caught some breaks and made it to the pros?
I meet people like Woody Harrelson's character a lot in the entertainment industry. They are people who are extremely talented in what they are passionate about (acting, directing, writing etc...) but have a key ingredient missing from their persona. They don't understand and know how to build structure around their talents. So they have this gift but don't know how to use it properly with our current world. Bottomline, they don't have a plan. They just live their lives one day at a time without really thinking about their present day actions. I call them lost souls.
These Lost Souls, like Woody's basketball skills in White Men Can't Jump, usually have more talent than most of the people who have succeeded in their field, but they just don't know how to live within the world. They usually end up screwing up every opportunity life gives them because they get too scared when life rewards them. It's easier to be a failure than a success. It really is.
So in the last scene in White Men Can't Jump as the two leads walk off into the sunset, it's really a sad ending because they really haven't learned anything at all. The two hour film gives them many opportunities to learn, but they don't see it. So they'll keep doing the whole basketball hustle thing and just live life day by day.
There's a lot to learn in this film. From a storytelling standpoint, Ron Shelton gives us two stories. Many people will laugh at the jokes, enjoy the basketball scenes and be happy. And others will see the subtext drama that Shelton also gives us.
And from a life standpoint, it's good to always remember that when you WIN at something, it really could be a LOSS. And when you LOSS at something, it really could be a WIN. And sometimes it means nothing either way and is just a TIE.