Eddie Huang’s ‘Boogie’ Is A Compelling But Hokey Basketball Drama

The idea of a movie about an Asian-American basketball prospect is compelling enough, but Boogie is also saddled with the baggage of seemingly everything writer/director Eddie Huang thinks is cool. Some of it fits, some of it doesn’t, and lots of times his attempts at a fresh angle come off achingly corny.

Huang, the lawyer-turned-streetwear-designer-turned-chef-turned-memoirist whose book Fresh Off The Boat spawned a hit television show, made headlines back in 2015 for a Twitter feud with Black feminists, who’d called him a misogynist for comparing Asian men in the dating scene with Black women. The feud ended with Huang sarcastically asking one if they were dating.

Knowing that, it’s hard not to interpret Boogie, a movie written and directed by Huang, about a Chinese-American basketball prospect played by Taylor Takahashi, who falls in love with a Black woman played by Taylour Paige*, as a love story between Huang’s idealized self and his idealized partner — possibly an attempt to work through his Twitter spat in a story. Which isn’t a criticism; the best stories are personal, and can often grow out of an attempt to understand one’s self. Yet Boogie is so full of mumbly dialogue, stock phrases, and failed analogies that it’s hard to tell what insight Huang ultimately gained.

Takahashi plays Alfred “Boogie” Chin, an NYC basketball prospect who has joined a failing basketball team for his senior year, in order to prove to D1 scouts that he’s worthy of a scholarship — which he can do by beating his rival and already-star, “Monk,” played by the rapper Pop Smoke. Alfred tells his teacher “I prefer to go by my stripper name,” Boogie, and meets his love interest, Eleanor, in the school weightroom. When she catches him staring at her crotch, Boogie tells her that she has “a nice vagina.” As a character-establishing anecdote it makes sense enough — Boogie is a sought-after hoops prospect and maintains this cocky punk front to hide his insecurities. In terms of humor, it feels more brash than funny, like giving us set-up and treating it like punchline.

The elephant in the room: Takahashi is 28, Paige is 30, and neither look remotely like high schoolers. Generally speaking, I can overlook a director choosing acting competence over strict authenticity. In this particular case, Takahashi is clearly a competent basketball player, and presumably that’s why he was cast. Acting-wise he’s decent for a non-actor. Basically, the reverse is true of his rival, Monk, played by Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, whose acting is on point but whose basketball scenes take more cuts than Liam Neeson jumping the fence in Taken 3. Over and over Monk takes two dribbles in the lane and then we smash cut to a tomahawk dunk. Pop Smoke was killed in early 2020, so perhaps there are logistical reasons for how hacked together the basketball scenes look. But without speculating, it’s not great when a basketball movie has bad basketball scenes.

Boogie and Eleanor eventually bond, allowing Boogie to drop the cool-jerk facade and open up. He explains that his dad “is irresponsible, but he clearly cares about me. My mom is responsible, but doesn’t seem to care about me.” Boogie is constantly getting caught up in their struggle to control his basketball destiny. There’s something there, but whatever it is tends to get lost in Huang’s sloppy metaphors and penchant for shoehorning internet speak into scenes. Like when Boogie’s coach, played by Dominic Lombardozzi (Herc from The Wire) benches Boogie and Boogie mutters “weird flex, but okay.”

Yep, that’s, definitely something people on the internet say.

Another scene set in English class sees Boogie taking issue with Catcher In The Rye, calling out Holden Caufield for his “inherently privileged perspective.” Boogie’s teacher praises this bold take and tells Boogie he should speak up in class more. Lord, are we still congratulating ourselves for privilege-checking the protagonists of a 50-year-old novels? Too much of this movie consists of Huang writing himself as the hero of five-year-old Twitter discourse, like the streetwear Aaron Sorkin.

In another scene, arguably Boogie‘s centerpiece, Boogie the character complains to Eleanor about broccoli beef. He points out that other immigrant groups like the Greeks and Italians all have their own versions of broccoli beef. And then sighs “Chinese people could be so much more if this country didn’t reduce us down to broccoli and beef.”

I rewound this scene two or three times and I still have no Earthly idea what this metaphor is meant to convey. Maybe I’m just not cool enough to “get it.” Maybe the point is that I don’t get it. Or maybe Huang, who has built a persona on being unique and provocative, often gets caught between analogies that are meant to explain feelings and ones that are strictly a branding exercise.

‘Boogie’ is in theaters now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

*How about that, I didn’t know they were both named Taylor until just now.