Hustle, after limited theatrical release, premieres Wednesday, June 8 on Netflix.
Adam Sandler, in a unicorn-rare drama actually produced by Happy Madison, displays both his acting chops and his love of basketball in a traditional, heart-swelling sports tale about an aging NBA scout and a Spanish defense prodigy he hopes to bring into the big time. Hustle is an old-school, by-the-numbers, feel-good fable, featuring a Sandler who — no surprise — is easily able to carry an earnest dramatic story on his shoulders.
The soft downside of Hustle is that it’s unnervingly conventional, and at times it goes overboard with its use of famous faces, but at the end it’s still an effective, traditional underdog movie that hits all the right notes and allows Sandler to be weary, grumpy , and clever all at once. We’ve seen Sandler do drama before, but it usually comes to us as quirky and/or juiced-up roles for auteur directors (Punch Drunk Love, Uncut Gems). This is his stab at an everyman, allowing himself to be schlubby and genuine (side note: it’s probably the closest he’s come to playing himself, in a way).
Hustle is an excellent example of “cliches are cliches because they work.” You’ll feel sadness and joy at the appropriate times. You’ll root for the heroes to overcome odds, naysayers, and personal demons. It’s the story of two men trying to realize their dreams, with the more interesting half of that being that one of them is in his 50s and doesn’t think it’s possible (much like society doesn’t think it’s possible) to have new achievements in that stage of life.
In something that’s sort of become a tradition for Netflix films, very talented people are featured in tiny supporting roles, as we get Robert Duvall, Ben Foster, SNL’s Heidi Gardner, and Queen Latifah in the background here, not doing much (though Latifah has good chemistry with Sandler, playing his wife). Duvall pops in briefly as a mentor, Foster’s just around to be smarmy, and Gardner is basically simply a plot point. For the most part, Hustle emphasizes its ball players, whether it’s legends or media personalities playing themselves or real athletes playing different characters (Kenny Smith as the best friend or the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards as an on-court nemesis). That’s the focus here. Sandler’s character, Stanley Sugarman, lives and breathes basketball, so it makes sense that the movie should do the same.
As a long-toiling scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, Stanley’s been away for his job more than home for his family, and missed more of his daughter’s birthdays than should ever be acceptable. Finally made an assistant coach, Stanley finds his home base dream ripped away from him when the owner’s son, Vince (Foster), sends him back overseas to find a desperately needed “next big thing.” On a lark, Stanley discovers Juancho Hernangómez’s Bo, a construction worker who just happens to exhibit every X-factor he’s looking for. Vince rejects Stanley’s pick so Stanley decides to bring Bo to the States on his own dime, taking a huge risk.
Hernangómez, who plays for the Utah Jazz, is a good hand as Bo. Because Sandler is so great at chatter and banter, he more than makes up for Bo’s terse demeanor. Plus, Bo is played very childlike, so the buddy elements here work simply because it’s all designed for Sandler to talk circles around someone. And it pays off over the course of the movie, too, when Bo begins to open up more and a firmer rapport is established.
If this had all been done poorly, it would have felt like someone underacting paired with someone over-extending, but it works well, and Stanley’s surrogate father-slash-coach role allows for a playfulness to shine through. For better or worse, Hustle is often a two-man show, but occasionally the story’s able to side step a convention or two and the final act comes up with its own version of a three-pointer at the buzzer.
You don’t have to be immersed in the world of sports, or even just basketball, to fall under Hustle’s spell. It can be enough that the characters have an unbending passion for it, and the way Sandler talks about it, and unleashes the jargon, feels natural and inviting. Hustle is a solid inspirational sports movie woven into some of Sandler’s style of humor, which allows it to feel a touch more unique than some of its cinematic peers.
Netflix Spotlight: June 2022