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Like Mike

(2002) * 1/2 Pg
100 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: John Schultz. Cast: Shad 'Bow Wow' Gregory Moss, Morris Chestnut, Jonathan Lipnicki, Brenda Song, Jesse Plemons.

It's tempting to give the well-acted, watchable Like Mike an innocuous two-star pass, but this kiddie fantasy relies on too-many clichés (and a dubious implicit message) in delivering its prefab commercial goods.

Like Mike wastes no time introducing--in close-up--its star: wee rapper Lil' Bow Wow. He's a resident at the Chesterfield Group Home Orphanage, which--according to slow and clumsy exposition--is Dickens in day-glo. Eternally weird Crispin Glover plays the manipulative director, who forces young Calvin Cambridge (Wow) and best bud Murph (growing boy Jonathan Lipnicki, of Jerry Maguire fame) to sell candy in front of prominently displayed NBA venue Staples Center (did I mention Like Mike is brought to you today by NBA Entertainment and the color green?). Anywho, a nun played by Anne Meara gives Calvin battered Nike sneakers which presumably belonged to a pre-teen Michael Jordan. Before you can say Big, a magic lightning-bolt converts Calvin into a basketball dynamo. Then, Calvin chats up coach Robert Forster, scores free tickets, wins a competition hosted by L.A. Knights promoter Eugene Levy and star player Morris Chestnut, and gets invited to join the team. Then, other stuff happens, and more famous people show up.

Sweet in a manipulative sort of way, Like Mike benefits from its colorful, glitzy NBA scenes and its star's appealing energy. The supporting players provide some juice, and Morris Chestnut charismatically carries off the slow melt of reluctant father figure Tracy Reynolds. The movie takes off when Calvin does (from the floor of the Knights's court), and there's a flash of self-satire in the contrast of his gee-whiz awe to Levy's exploitative gleam. Thankfully, when the magic shoes inevitably fail, the filmmakers underplay Calvin's inner-reserves success.

But being "like Mike" means practice and endurance, not success handed off on a silver platter, so the fantasy belies a central, hard-earned lesson of sporting. Parents may also blanch at two successive scenes of reckless driving (one casual and one a crisis) and Calvin's height-scaling retrieval of the magic shoes in a lightning storm. On the other hand, they may warm to the brief, clichéd "learning is fun" scene and the family values warmly embodied in the Tracy-Calvin relationship (forgetting that the film resolves Tracy's rift with his father without ever bothering to explain it).

Like Mike's limited creativity and maximized product placement sink an otherwise amiable comedy. As Snoop Dogg's nephew, Lil' Bow Wow knows the high of getting in the door, but I hope field-tripping orphans won't expect instant-win tickets to the stratosphere.

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