hey’re playin’ basketball, we love that basketball…” Yes they are, and yes we do, all up in Like Mike, the much-promoted movie starring Lil’ Bow Wow and a few plucky adults. And according to the lyrics of Bow Wow’s first single off the soundtrack—powerpacked with featured artists, Bow’s mentor Jermaine Dupri, Fabolous, and Fundisha—he knows how to play the game: “When I got possession, I’m gonna have to fool wit it, / I might cross you up and fake one way, / Turn around and hit you wit the MJ fade-away.”
It’s easy to see why Bow Wow—ambitious, clever, self-confident—appealed to the folks who put this film-cd-gear- package together, namely, 20th Century Fox, the NBA, and Columbia Records. He plays an adorable orphan named Calvin (as in Calvin Broadus, the birth name of Bow’s other mentor, Snoop) who gets a chance to play for the NBA. It goes without saying that, during this dream-come-true stint, the kid learns important lessons about friendship, sportsmanship, and room service, in between times, sharing the court with The Answer and The Admiral. Think: Space Jam without the cartoon characters, or better, Harry Potter without the damn broomstick, but with cornrows and a wicked jump shot.
It doesn’t hurt that young Bow Wow (currently in the process of dropping the Lil’ from his name, now that he’s 15 and, as he puts it to the Washington Post, “The Lil’ thing is getting played out”) is a talented performer, a hard worker, and a team player to boot. Somehow he manages to look simultaneously cool and cute enough that he attracts fans—many of them screaming and waving giant foam-rubber doggy-paws—across race-gender-and-age lines.
Take a look at his frankly incredible music videos for “Puppy Love,” “Ghetto Girls,” and “Thank You.” The kid straddles demographics like nobody’s business. His lyrics maintain that he can’t get serious with girls, because he’s “just too young to get down like that.” But images suggest otherwise. Whether he’s spraying his hose at girls washing cars, playing with his puppies, or wrestling with a woman twice his height, he wins smiles-and-nods and “Yo, mans” from everyone in the vicinity, Da Brat and JD, girls jumping rope and guys in fly rides. Aside from his kiddie sex appeal, he makes older girls swoon and impresses boys of all ages. He makes sense on Twix commercials and 106th & Park, Nick and BET. And now he’s making movies too.
From Like Mike‘s very first image—a close shot of Bow’s face that has girlies in the audience squealing—it’s clear the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing. Calvin is a nice kid (he’d never be caught dead making the kind of dance moves Bow makes), living at a rickety inner city Group Home run by one Bittleman (Crispin Glover, looking very scary), who makes the kids sell candy bars at the Staples Center late at night. Calvin spends his off-work hours doing homework for Sister Theresa (Anne Meara) and shooting hoops with fellow lovable waifs Reg (Brenda Song) and Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki, who seems not to have grown an inch since Jerry Maguire, just a little scary).
Refusing to be cowed by circumstance, he dreams of being adopted by the perfect family, taking reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as his model. You know this is fantasy—and not a very healthy one—but he thinks he’s on his way, every time the pairs of parents trundle in looking for adoptees. He and his pals watch forlornly fro the doorway as younger orphans are selected (“Parents only want the puppies,” sighs one of the unchosen). As if to add insult to injury, the “height-challenged” Calvin must endure daily abuse from the Group Home’s very own bully, the ominously named Ox (Jesse Plemons).
Just so, when Calvin comes on what he takes to be a very special pair of old kicks, with the initials “MJ” magic-markered in the tongues, Ox tosses them over a power wire. Desperate to get his shoes, Calvin crawls out on a tree limb during a storm and gets zapped. Progress Energy Inc. has already stepped up to condemn the act: “The actions depicted in the movie’s make-believe scene are extremely dangerous and if replicated would most likely result in severe electrical shock or death”—kids, don’t try this at home!
Conceived by Michael Elliot (once a rapper himself, as well as Krush magazine publisher, radio host, and The Source‘s “Director of Special Projects”), Like Mike is more like a lengthy commercial—for Bow, for Columbia’s soundtrack cd, for the NBA, for ESPN—than a movie. So, Calvin’s electrical charge is all good—his teeth rattle, his sneakers light up, and suddenly, he can make shots he didn’t even dream of making before. Long story short: he’s hired by the L.A. Knights, whose promotions maniac Frank (Eugene Levy) convinces the infinitely patient Coach Wagner (Robert Forster, who has never looked sadder than he does in this role) to go along with what seems a ratings gimmick, pairing Calvin with the team’s currently struggling franchise player, Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut: what’s more disheartening, costarring with the scene-stealing Bow or the barely registering Steven Seagal?).
At first, relevant adults assume Calvin’s hiring is a joke, until—oh no!—they discover the kid’s got game. And it takes just one road-series montage to make Calvin and Tracey into the team’s much-lauded franchise duo. Poor Tracey is assigned to guide Calvin, which he righteously resents. They room together on the road, which puts a considerable crimp in T-Time’s style, especially when it comes to the ladies. The film can’t quite make sense of the several events that are supposed to bring Tracey and Calvin together, and so it jumps from one to another: they rap along with DMX in the car, they hang out About A Boy-like at Tracey’s mansion, they pass and shoot like gangbusters on the court.
Like Mike negotiates its star’s multiple appeals—for girls and boys, hiphop aficionados and 8-year-old pop fans—by emphasizing his cute-little-boyness (soon to be over, as Bow’s mustache is already starting to show). Just so, the sex-part of these appeals, which, in another circumstance, could turn into Mario Van Peebles as baby Sweetback, is ameliorated, routed through one of Tracey’s dates, who thinks Calvin’s so “sweet,” she has to hold him to her bosom and comfort him.
Here, Calvin is much like other movie-orphans, and Like Mike conjures the same old-fashioned story that Shirley Temple used to make, ‘cept without animal crackers and with beats. And just so you know that the film knows that it’s ripping off clichés, when Calvin is auditioning potential adoptive parents (who come out of the woodwork when he’s rich and famous), one couple does musical theater, and they treat him to a rousing, if horrific, rendition of “Tomorrow.”
At the same time, Like Mike generates a self-consciously up-to-date, PG-13 buddy dynamic. While most of the film delights in its outrageousness (Crispin Glover seems incapable of playing anything but a caricature), the Tracey-Calvin relationship forms a sentimental center. On the road, they’re more or less equal roommates, competing for females, good shots, and Coach’s approval. At home, they’re more like father and son, or maybe better, brothers: Tracey teaches Calvin geometry by painting orange triangles all over his mansion’s pretty white walls; and well-meaning Calvin tries to reconcile Tracey with his own estranged dad. (No moms or daughters here: girls only gum up the bonding works.) The very complicatedness of this layered, homosocial, mentor-mentee liaison makes it compelling, if not exactly coherent. You might imagine this is not unlike life, if you’re Bow Wow.