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White Men Can't Jump is funny both on and off the court

White Men Can't Jump
Written and directed by Ron Shelton.
Starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
At Loews Cheri.

By Robert Cavicchio

White men can't jump. Nor can they hear Jimi Hendrix, or rather hear Jimi Hendrix. At least that's what Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) tells Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) in this often fast and funny film that concerns a little bit more than just basketball.

If you have sensitive ears or a soft spot for fairy tales, don't look for sympathy in this film. The setting is the streets and playground courts where fast-talking hustlers spout reams of obscenities and jokes about each other's mothers that one suspects are only in part intended to get their opponents off their guards. But these scenes are terrific -- whatever the auditory analog of blinking is, if you do it, you'll miss a punch line. The action is fast, and "slamming" is part of the game in more ways than one. As Snipes' character puts it, "It's hard work makin' you look so bad." But White Men Can't Jump is much more than funny. To Billy and Sidney, basketball isn't the only game being played, and the stakes are too high for comfort.

Billy is the white man -- someone who tucks his remarkable basketball skills under his backwards cap and baggy shorts and wanders quietly onto the beach court where Sidney is playing. In short order, this "chump" is called upon to show what he can do, and he proceeds to take Sidney for a sum that makes but a small dent in Billy's $8,000 debt to the Stucci brothers, whom he hopes he can elude until he comes up with the balance.

Sidney has little in common with Billy other than talents for basketball and hustling, but he's impressed enough to ask Billy to help him pull the same stunt on someone else. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful partnership, right? It doesn't last long. It seems that Sidney feels that one good con deserves another, and he throws their second game, leaving Billy flat broke and so dumbfounded that he needs his girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez) to tell him he's been taken. She also drags him to Sidney's house to demand the money back.

There are no true good guys in this film, just a pair of likeable couples who do what it takes to get by. When Sidney's wife Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell) refuses Gloria the money, the two nevertheless get the men to enter a two-on-two tournament with a grand prize of $5,000.

It soon becomes apparent that Billy's perpetual state of poverty isn't just bad luck. Even Rhonda Deane recognizes that he has a problem. After he loses his half of the winnings to Sidney on a bet he proposed (and then insisted on), he returns home and dejectedly tells Gloria, "It happened again." Then she leaves him. Again.

Things only get more complicated from there. As Sidney and Billy run into more difficulties, a reluctant friendship grows between them -- even if it is disguised as only a trading of favors. These men like each other, the audience likes them, and it's played well. It's not a sappy or unlikely relationship, and it's not a back-stabbing one either. It's certainly fun to watch these two. Snipes portrays the perfect street-tough con artist with a real human being inside. The trick to the success of this character is that he's not the typical hard guy who's hiding a soft core that even he doesn't know about until (surprise, surprise) the end. Here, the man with the emotions and values isn't just hidden away beneath the hustler that Sidney's street buddies know. His love for his wife and his several jobs aren't secrets, but they don't stop him from letting his basketball skills turn him a buck every now and then. In fact, the money goes toward getting his family a house of their own in a good neighborhood. The hustler is only a small part of the man, and Deane treats it accordingly. Despite his methods on the basketball court, Sidney possesses an honesty that goes beyond the ethics of a swindle.

Billy is streetwise, but he has the aura of innocence one might expect from a Harrelson character. The part is cast well. Watching the film, you get the feeling that somewhere, down inside, there's a part of Billy Hoyle that believes everybody's basically a good person. And he counts on that in unconscious ways, like not expecting Sidney to turn the tables on him in a hustle. Ironically, that may be one of the qualities Sidney likes about him.

Though the focus of the story is on the men, the most intriguing character is Gloria Clemente, Billy's girlfriend. For one thing, she's a Jeopardy! fanatic who spends the first half of the film memorizing books of the Bible and foods that start with the letter "q." She tends to initiate philosophical discussions seemingly out of the blue, confusing the hell out of Billy. In one delightful scene, after trying to explain to him that you don't always win when you think you do, she says, "Winning and losing is all one big organic globule from which one extracts what one needs." Billy's response? "I hate it when you talk like that."

It's good fun, and it's a good story. The beginning is somewhat predictable, but that's more than offset by the pace, and the ending may even surprise you. The Stucci brothers eventually catch up with Billy, but their methods of persuasion are somewhat unorthodox, to say the least. And yes, everyone's favorite game show host, Alex Trebek, makes an appearance. We even get to hear Harrelson sing part of a song that Billy writes for Gloria, which begins, "I'd never bring you water when you're thirstin' in our bed." Curious? If so, then watch the film. I think you'll enjoy it.