The last time I saw Adam Sandler in a movie – forgive me, I missed Hubie Halloween – he was sweating, swearing and causing a storm in Uncut Gems. It wasn’t his first major performance (or his last), but he did reveal something about his special gifts that few of his die-hard fans and equally die-hard critics have ever fully appreciated.
There’s something great about watching a Sandler character struggling to win at all costs, going to extreme lengths and pushing himself and everyone around him to the limit. The critically ridiculed Lowbrow comedies he’s been associated with for too long fail not because of offense, but because of laziness; It’s refreshing when a new project really grabs his attention, and with it ours.
It also helps if the film in question was designed with some care, as is the case with the aptly titled Netflix basketball drama Hustle. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar (“We the Animals”) from a script by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, it’s a formulaic yet finely structured underdog tale set amidst the hyper-competitive hustle and bustle of the NBA pre-draft circuit.
Sandler is in top form as Stanley Sugerman, a former athlete-turned-talent scout who spends his days jetting around the world in search of new blood for the Philadelphia 76ers. He is very good at his job and very tired from all the flights, hotel rooms, and fast food meals that clog arteries, as well as the time he spends away from his wife (a warmhearted Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull).
Sandler is a producer on the film (as is LeBron James), and his involvement in the film stems from a basketball obsession best known among fellow New York Knicks fans who have spotted him courtside at Madison Square Garden.
With a beard, glasses, and beleaguered looks, he’s totally believable as a man with a deep, lifelong love for the game, even if the game hasn’t always loved him. As he assesses potential acquisitions, shuffling through offices and airports and staring glassy-eyed at television monitors, Stan is a man in need of a reawakening. And he finds her one night in Spain, glimpsing a rough diamond named Bo Cruz, a construction worker by day, and an amazingly talented basketball player by night. But for various reasons, including Bo’s lack of professional experience and Stan’s troubled relationship with the ’76’s spiteful owner Vince (Ben Foster), making these immigrant hoop dreams a reality will be harder than expected.
Played by Juancho Hernangómez of the Utah Jazz (and formerly, briefly, of the Boston Celtics, currently an NBA title chaser), Bo is played with a touching blend of athletic prowess and newcomer naivety. He’s one of many, many NBA players and alumni cleverly recruited to give “Hustle” a jolt of authenticity and offset the script’s occasionally bland phrasing.
Kenny Smith plays a retired star and close confidant of Stan. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley are on hand to offer some (surprisingly sympathetic) comments. Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry and countless other ball pros feature in the game sequences, which are thrillingly shot by Zak Mulligan and edited with driving bite and coherence by Tom Costain, Brian Robinson and Keiko Deguchi.
Some of these employees are regulars on Sandler productions, which speaks to Zagar’s ability to bring a personal touch to the Netflix/Happy Madison company’s generally anonymous aesthetic. There’s a sense of harshness here, a rough-hewn looseness of visual construction that works particularly well in the early scenes set in Spain, where Stan first sees Bo in action and then meets his mother, Paola (Maria Botto), and young daughter, Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet) who leans heavily on Bo for support. Those unfortunate domestic scenes could have sounded fake or forced, but nobody who’s watched We the Animals, Zagar’s 2018 shabby-intimate family drama, will be surprised at how confidently he handles it here. (Deguchi was one of the editors of that earlier film.)
That visual rawness, reinforced by an energetic hip-hop/electronic soundtrack and well-chosen locations (Zagar grew up in Philly), also informs what feels like one of the longer sports training montages ever filmed — a “Rocky”-esque one Roundup of rude awakenings, target practice, and uphill cardio workouts that themselves run more like a marathon than a sprint.
Even here, you can sense Zagar’s attempt to push beyond convention and turn a worn-out sports film into its own story rather than an abbreviation. He tries to show us how coaching Bo Stan rejuvenates, ignites bromantic sparks and turns the usual mentor-mentee drama formula on its head. But he also conveys a sense of the agility and stamina, both mental and physical, that Bo will need to excel – not only in a game he knows well, but in a country and system with its own odd ones codes and obstacles.
To that end, Bo is given a persistent nemesis named Kermit Wilts (played by Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards) who gets in his head early on and refuses to come out. As good as Edwards is, I wish “Hustle” didn’t trade so easily with standard villains (Foster plays a different one, not for the first time) and other well-known beats, Bo’s and Stan’s respective tragic backstories.
These narrative fallbacks uncomfortably co-exist with the screenplay’s occasional glimpses toward insider sports dramas like “Jerry Maguire,” “Moneyball,” and especially “High Flying Bird,” which memorably turned a basketball storyline into a glassy-cerebral anti-capitalist parable.
“Hustle” gives us a warmer, gentler look down the corridors of NBA power, and even here the tensions run along the lines of family drama. (Robert Duvall appears as the much-revered previous owner of the ’76, who is Vince’s father but considers Stan to be his true heir.)
His interest in the injustices and compromises in the sports world is ultimately diverted from his higher priority of finding a place to star in a game he loves.
I’m talking, of course, about Sandler, whose hustle and bustle here is all the more convincing the more reserved he is. He has seldom worked harder or more successfully for audience amusement.
Valuation: R, for language
Duration: 1 hour 58 minutes
To play: Usually release; begins streaming on Netflix on June 8th
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-06-07/hustle-review-netflix-adam-sandler-basketball ‘Hustle’ review: Adam Sandler’s Netflix basketball drama scores