Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters
Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar
Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA
When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.
In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.
A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.
But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.
It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.
Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.
What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team.
In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.
Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.)
Running Time: 117 mins.
Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”
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