Once upon a time, Adam Sandler promised us a movie that would be “so bad on purpose” to make the world pay in the event that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his frenzied, mesmerizing performance in the 2019 film “Uncut Gems.” In typical Academy fashion, Sandler was snubbed, and so the world prepared for dregs the likes of which the cinematic world had not seen before.
But alas, Sandler’s next film, “Hubie Halloween,” was decidedly not the worst movie ever made – not even the worst movie Sandler has ever made – and actually quite charming in its way. And Sandler’s newest film, “Hustle,” is quite the opposite of “bad on purpose.”
Instead, it’s the sort of film we wistfully say things like, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” – the kind of film that in another life would have brought crowds in droves to the movie theater instead of being unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix in early June. A right down the middle, inspirational sports movie that showcases the softer side of an actor who has been deceptively meticulous about which persona he decides to give us and when.
While Sandler has deigned to show us his serious side before, over the past few years he seems to be leaning into it more than ever while managing not to sacrifice the comic instincts that elevated him in the first place. There’s “Uncut Gems,” a critically acclaimed film starring Sandler as an eccentric jeweler with a gambling problem that’s been heralded as one of the best performances of his career. Even “Hubie Halloween” – a goofy, farce of a movie – essentially has Sandler playing the straight man, a naive, sweet fool stuck in the middle of a murder investigation. And now he’s given us “Hustle,” a movie that’s as much about second chances for its main characters as it is the continuation of a comeback narrative for its lead actor.
“Hustle” centers on professional basketball scout Stangley Sugerman (Sandler), a bit of a schlub who works for the Philadelphia 76ers, but longs for a coaching gig on the sidelines. While on a scouting trip to Spain, he happens upon a street player named Bo Cruz (real life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) and decides Bo is his last chance to make something of himself. The rest of the cast is filled out with Hollywood legends – Robert Duvall as the owner of the 76ers, Queen Latifah as Stanley’s wife Teresa – and basketball legends alike – Kenny Smith, Doc Rivers, even Dr. J himself.
Well-made sports movies, much like romantic comedies, have the ability to wash over you like a warm bath. You might know all the beats, but if they’re done well, who really cares if they’re predictable? From its opening montage, “Hustle” deals in that specific sort of comfort. Stanley’s scouting trips flash by us in a whirlwind of dimly-lit hotels, cramped airplanes, and empty fast food containers. The motivational, driving soundtrack feels slightly incongruous with the less than luxurious life we see Stanley living – life moves fast, but countries blur together, cabs outside of airports all look the same, and life on the road gets lonely. The montage perfectly sets up Stanley as a guy with all the basketball knowledge and drive in the world, but also a bit down on his luck, a bit over the hill, wondering if this is what his life will be forever or if there’s a second chance down the road.
Stanley’s fictional plight feels similar to Sandler’s professional one. Sandler’s
“comeback” over the past few years has less to do with his box office draw – he continues to be as bankable as ever, and recently signed a $250 million deal with Netflix – and more to do with proving something to those who don’t take him seriously, while still maintaining the persona that’s gotten him this far. If “Uncut Gems” found Sandler leaning into his absurdist tendencies, heightening his vocal tics and using his physicality to portray anxiety in its highest form, “Hustle” finds him pulling back, finding grooves between his signature, over-the-top style and dad-core sensitivity.
Anyone who has seen an Adam Sandler movie knows he has a bit of a yelling shtick, abruptly erupting into fits of humorous anger with an howl that makes it sound like his vocal chords have been run through by a cheese grater. In “Uncut Gems,” that yell becomes fraught with fear, almost mad at the prospect of losing a bet. But in “Hustle,” it takes on a rawness that perfectly encapsulates a man at the end of his rope, brimming with almost tearful desperation whether he’s pleading with the powers that be to give Bo a shot or delivering a motivational speech. Sandler’s trajectory over the past few years further proves his proclivity for bringing real emotion to a scene, despite the sneering that might accompany his name in more elite circles. He’s a lot like Stanley in that way too – despite Stanley’s success as a scout, no one in the 76er’s front office believes what he says about Bo Cruz’s abilities. And no matter how many times Sandler delivers a great performance – whether it be “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Reign Over Me,” or “Uncut Gems” – we all act surprised every single time.
Beyond Sandler’s performance, the film falls into some of your typical sports movie trappings, but is able to eclipse others. Queen Latifah is pigeonholed in the typical “coach’s wife” role, alternately nagging and helpful when the script calls for it. If she wasn’t Queen Latifah and overflowing with charm, the role might not work at all – but she is, and she and Sandler have a sweet chemistry about them. The decision to cast real professional basketball players, both as themselves and as fictional characters, was a wonderful decision and leads to basketball scenes that crackle with tension and feel real – no need for awkward cuts to hide the fact that some actor can’t really play. As Bo Cruz, Hernangómez handles the dramatic beats of the story with a sweetness and sensitivity you might not expect from a 6’9” athlete, and Minnesota Timberwolves phenom Anthony Edwards is deliciously nasty as Kermit Wilts, Bo’s main antagonist.
Long story short, show this movie to the basketball fans in your life – the Sandler fans, too. You won’t regret it.