Adam Sandler’s comedic career has never gone down particularly well with the critics – much more so of recent – but audiences still appear to feel a buzz whenever he shows up, and it was enough to score him a mind-blowing nine figure deal with Netflix. Sadly, much of what this pairing has churned out throughout the years hasn’t exactly seemed worth such a deal, despite what the streaming numbers may suggest. But with films like The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), Sandler gets to demonstrate his dramatic capabilities, and Hustle offers yet another slam-dunk performance, proving once again that with the right material and genre Sandler succeeds beyond all expectations.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, A traveling basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, seeking the next big thing in the NBA. After a list of potential prospects leads to disappointing results, Sugarman finds lightning in the most unlikely of places. Witnessing a street game during his travels in Spain, his attention is drawn to 22-year-old construction worker Bo Cruz (played by NBA player Juancho Hernangomez) and believes he’s found his winning ticket.
Hustle doesn’t play out like your typical underdog story. Don’t get me wrong most of the sport related clichés are still present. Montages, inspirational quotes, the Mr. Miyagi type relationship between teacher and student, and the trials and tribulations that come with someone trying to real their goal. But the movie doesn’t hinge solely on this premise. Both characters have their reasons for backing one another, and they each have stories that are handled with care.
Hustle starts with a more analytic perspective on the sport, much like Kostner’s Draft Day (2014) or similarly Brad Pitt’s role in Moneyball (2011). It’s about numbers and stats and the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t quite at that competitive edge yet (even though this isn’t something that is deeply explored). But when Sugerman is struck by Bo’s potential, the dynamic shifts and the remainder of the movie’s runtime is focused upon their bond and shared earnestness for success.
We’ve had sports personalities popping up in movies for years. Many as cameos or brief encounters and even sometimes as leads. Juancho Hernangomez is one of the two leads and as a result is given a lot to do in Hustle. Hernangomez gives a surprisingly strong performance especially when co-starring alongside Sandler, who is given the type of material that he exceeds in most. Their relationship is convincing and is ultimately why Hustle functions as well as it does.
As expected Hustle isn’t an entirely unique concept. As a matter of fact, it’s far from it. Whilst its opening goes against the grain of your generic sports drama, it doesn’t take too long to fall into the same traps and offer the same scenarios and narrative situations. The middle act is where this is most evident, as it can be likened to many genre specific dramas over the last couple of decades. But director Jeremiah Zagar knows how to shoot a basketball movie, and is backed by not only a strong set of casting choices, but also a competent writing team that help drag Hustle over the touchline.