Synopsis – A washed-up basketball scout discovers a phenomenal street ball player while in Spain and sees the prospect as his opportunity to get back into the NBA.
My Take – Probably just because he has been at it for so long, Adam Sandler continues to remain the face of occasionally enjoyable absurd man-child films, that co-star his usual entourage and their shenanigans. However, in his recent roles in films like The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), Sandler has especially well proven himself to be a performer in dramatic roles which required to him shed his funnyman persona and settle into nuanced every man characters.
His latest Netflix venture too sees him returning back to that frame, only this time bringing along his passion for basketball into the mix. And like one would expect typically from films in the sports film genre, the LeBron James produced drama is a real crowd pleaser. Though backed by a very predictable story, Jeremiah Zagar‘s fantastic direction gives the film a lot of energy and moments of entertainment whilst still delivering the required montages and thrilling basketball sequences.
But most importantly, writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters tell their story with plenty of warmth and showcase a clear love and passion for the sport. Yes, it helps if you have context of the game of basketball and the running of the NBA, but the film treats its lead characters with sufficient emotional touches that make their journey worth seeing.
Don’t get me wrong, the film doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel for the most part. The plot is very typical of the genre, with the usual trials and tribulations afoot, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t really matter that we’ve seen most of it before.
The story follows Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler), a yesteryear NBA player who works as a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. But after so many years on the road, Stanley is now worn out and beaten down due to spending so much time away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). But while Stanley is immediately ecstatic when the team’s owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) finally offers him to fulfill his long time aspiration of becoming the team’s assistant coach, unfortunately, his dream goes down the drain when Rex dies, leaving his cocky son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge of the team.
Someone who has little respect for Stanley and promptly sends him back on the road, promising him the job only if he spots someone exceptional. That talent happens to be in Spain in the form of Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a 22-year-old construction worker, a single father, and a devoted son, who plays basketball to hustle money.
While Stanley succeeds in persuading Bo to take a shot at the NBA; however, when obstacles stack up, the basket keeps getting farther and farther from the coach and the prodigy. Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Vince rejects Bo, and a history of anger issues comes back to haunt Bo. Stanley ignores the naysayers, trusts his instincts, and takes on the project of preparing Bo for the scouting combine.
While the film no doubt has a familiar setting, director Jeremiah Zagar and writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters ensure to offer a wonderful piece of entertainment that has not only on-court excitement but also an arresting on-screen dynamic between Stanley and his Spanish discovery, who we are keen to see succeed, despite the various odds that are stacked against them.
The script also manages to infuse dramatic tension between cocky player Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards) and Cruz during an exhibition game, which is just one example of why this film works on multiple levels, the tension is both physical and verbal. The basketball sequences that were absolutely littered throughout Hustle were great. I loved how they place you right in the middle of the action, and absolutely nailed keeping up with the fast-paced nature of the game.
Indeed, all the standard sports drama tropes are dutifully checked off here, from multiple training montages to speeches about pushing through adversity. It also touches upon various aspects of the industry as a whole. There are marked observations about the business aspects of the industry; the politics that can sometimes be a little too dirty; and the hostile attitude towards outsiders. But, the truth of the matter is that these imperfections along the way make the film truly appealing and vulnerable.
Once again it’s no surprise that Adam Sandler gives a perfectly understated performance, especially compared to his usual output but still has plenty of dry wit that lands consistently. Sandler is as great as he was in the exceptional Uncut Gems, and proves once again that he can be so much more than the comedy figure that he is most well known for.
He’s ably supported by NBA star Juanco Hernangómez, who is unsurprisingly great on the court while also nailing Cruz’s naive vulnerability when the focus switches from basketball to family. Together, they’re a partnership who are easy to root for.
Though the two men are at the heart of this underdog sports story, they are surrounded by a talented cast of actors, who provide excellent support, ranging from Robert Duvall, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards, Jordan Hull, María Botto, Kenny Smith, Ainhoa Pillet, Jordan Elizabeth Hull, Raul Castillo and Heidi Gardner. On the whole, ‘Hustle’ is a very enjoyable sports drama anchored by Adam Sandler’s charming central act.
Directed – Jeremiah Zagar
Rated – R
Run Time – 117 minutes