Say what you will about Adam Sandler, but the actor almost exclusively strives to entertain his rather loyal audience. By and large, he makes broad comedies meant to elicit chuckles and smiles. From time to time, he obviously takes a turn towards drama or dramedy, where things get heavier. Whether it’s Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, both of which got him awards buzz and heavy acclaim, or more under-seen work like in Reign Over Me, those are opportunities for Sandler to stretch himself as an artist. Often, they come at the cost of a broader audience. Now, along comes Hustle, his latest Netflix film, but something is very different here. Instead of a silly comedy, this is a sports movie (albeit one that’s a drama with a ton of laughs), one that gives him a perfect role for his dramatic talents. Not only that, it’s arguably one of his best crowdpleasers, as well. If Hustle were a basketball prospect, it, along with Sandler, would be a first round draft pick. It’s a real winner, through and through.
Hustle mixes High Flying Bird, Jerry Maguire, and The Scout into something both compelling and heartwarming, with Sandler front and center with a highlight-worthy turn. He gets to be funny, sure, but he also utilizes his hang dog, tired look to great effect. He’s so believable as a longtime basketball scout that you’re immediately invested in the premise. Even when it occasionally takes a too convenient narrative shortcut, you’re just dead-set on seeing what happens next. This may well end up being one of the best films of 2022 when all is said and done, it’s that rock-solid.
Stanley Sugarman (Sandler) is a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, traversing the globe in the hopes of finding the next great basketball prospect. Having never wanted to be a scout but falling into it after his dreams of playing were shattered, Stanley is great at what he does, regardless. Still, he yearns to be a coach. When the owner of the team (Robert Duvall) grants him his wish, the days of lonely hotel rooms and fast food, not to mentioning missing another of his daughter’s birthdays, appear over. However, when the owner’s son (Ben Foster) comes into power, Stanley is unceremoniously sent back out on the road. At wits end, he comes across a shocking discovery on a random street court…Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez). Unknown and un-scouted prospects like this just don’t happen, making Cruz a unicorn. Sensing greatness, Stanley pleads with the 76ers to develop him. Rebuffed, he puts his own plan into motion.
Bringing Cruz over on his own dime, much to the chagrin of his wife (Queen Latifah), Stanley begins training him. At times, he opens everyone’s eyes with his stunning play. At other points, his lack of control gets the better of him, requiring Stanley to think quickly on his feet. As both men get to know each other better, the stakes both are facing become even more clear. Where the flick is going won’t necessarily surprise you, but how it gets there is always compelling and downright riveting, even.
Adam Sandler is in top form, while Juancho Hernangomez is a revelation. Sandler gets to be very funny, but it’s all down through a prism of exhaustion that perfectly suits his style. The deadpan humor and drop dead seriousness mix really well, creating a three-dimensional character you want to root for. Usually, when Sandler is stretching, he’s playing people on the harder side to like. That’s not the case with Hustle. When I say that he’s perfectly cast here, I really do mean it. Maybe this will finally get the Academy to notice him? As for Hernangomez, he certainly looks the part, butt the fire in his eyes is something special. The more you get to know Bo Cruz, though his portrayal, the more you pull for his success. If Hernangomez wants it, he has a career as an actor. Ben Foster is relishing playing Sandler’s foil, while Sandler and Queen Latifah have strong chemistry together, making up for an underwritten role. Robert Duvall is essentially a cameo, while the supporting cast includes Heidi Gardner and Jordan Hull, as well as a who’s-who of NBA talent, past and present.
Director Jeremiah Zagar, along with writers Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, know which sports movie cliches work and which to leave behind. They know their basketball, that’s for sure, but they also know how to do a first-rate montage. If a few of the plot threads resolve themselves a bit too easily off-screen, the investment in Sander’s protagonist more than makes up for it. Fetters and Materne focus on character, while Zagar crafts those characters alongside the cast, adding in striking visuals, to boot. While this is a Happy Madison production, nothing they’ve done before is anything like this.
Hustle is about as good as a film like this gets. With a performance from Sandler worthy of Oscar attention, this crowdpleaser hits on the comedy, the drama, and the sports of it all. It’s a full cinematic meal. What more could you ask for? Netflix could easily have saved this one for awards season, but as an at home option while summer blockbuster season is in full swing, it’s truly a cut above. Hustle deserves to be remembered at the end of the year, but whenever you see it, you’re likely to fall for it like I did!