When actors have an ace up their sleeve, it’s beyond rare for them to refuse to play it, especially in what feels like an act of defiance after many years. Adam Sandler has been beyond frustrating for decades — especially with his utterly dour output on Netflix — because we’ve seen him command the screen whenever darker, dramatically richer material presents itself. It had been so long since the acclaimed Punch-Drunk Love came out (and, let’s face it, nobody watched Reign Over Me) that Uncut Gems was when many realized what Sandler could do with a serious role. Perhaps the ensuing Oscar buzz for that performance got him pondering his legacy and if he could pull off such an accomplishment.
Enter Hustle, Sandler’s first Netflix drama since his insanely lucrative four (then eight) picture deal. It’s quite literally the best of both worlds as it’s Sandler’s strongest project on the streaming service and the most impressive effort from SpringHill Company, the production company headed by LeBron James and his agent, Maverick Carter. No doubt LeBron had a hand in rounding up notable current basketball players like Boban Marjanović, Khris Middleton, and others, who have bit parts in the film.
Channeling a similar energy he did in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler is Stanley Sugerman, an overworked and under-appreciated scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Under-discussed in general is the hectic and unromantic life of a sports scout. Stanley travels overseas in search of the next basketball star, spending his days at basketball games and his nights devouring both tape and fast food. The constant time away from his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) weighs heavy on his mind as well.
Shortly after promoting him to an assistant coach with the Sixers, the team’s owner (Robert Duvall) dies. His caddish son (Best Foster) takes over and is in desperate need of a slam-dunk in the draft, so he relegates Stanley back to scouting. Disillusioned in Spain, Stanley discovers Bo Cruz (current Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangómez), a streetballer who lives with his mom (Maria Botto) and young daughter (Ainhoa Pillet). Bo and his family are leery of Stanley’s promises, but even a league-minimum NBA salary seems too great to pass up. The 22-year-old construction worker is transplanted from Spain to Philly overnight with Stanley set on getting him in shape for the draft.
Of course, there are hurdles to clear and training montages in store. One particular montage is over 10 minutes in length, and keeps going despite appearing to be over at least two different times. In the hands of a lesser director, it undoubtedly would’ve been grating to endure. The talents of a relative-newcomer director in Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan combine to produce some attractively moody visuals, which freshen up the formula. Zagar, a Philly native, knows how to capture his city and its famously hostile fans as well. Some slick editing helps propel Hustle along to the point where we don’t feel like we’re watching the same story told again, even if we are.
Screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters (A Star is Born, 2018) leave a lot of the heavy-lifting to Sandler, whose comedy consists of colorful taunting tactics towards his raw-yet-promising player along with some other appropriate one-liners peppered in for good measure. Stanley is drawn realistically, as are many of the front-office politics that come into play every draft season, regardless of the league in question. The story is also careful not to forget the human qualities of Cruz’s character, who struggles with the pressures that come with talent and being so far away from the two people he cares about the most.
Cameos from NBA legends like “Dr. J” and Kenny Smith lend gravitas to the production. There’s also Anthony Edwards, former #1 overall pick, who has morphed into one of the league’s most exciting players. The Timberwolves shooting guard plays Kermit Wilts, a chippy young prospect whose trash talk gets in the head of the sensitive Cruz. Edwards has an acting career if he wants it. Much like his personality on the court, his youthful presence and humor is magnetic; it translates to the screen ever-so naturally.
Hustle is your standard underdog sports story, but it’s another case for formula breeding success when it’s in the hands of people who handle it effectively. By way of solid writing, genuine performances, and an engaged Adam Sandler, just like Bo Cruz, it overcomes the necessary obstacles in order to earn the dub.
NOTE: Hustle is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Starring: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah, Jordan Hull, Ben Foster, Maria Botto, Ainhoa Pillet, Anthony Edwards, Kenny Smith, Julius Erving, and Robert Duvall. Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!