Hustle, review: a snappy, solid Adam Sandler sports drama
The best and the worst of Adam Sandler are currently to be found on Netflix, whose coffers open regularly to him for new stuff, such as Murder Mystery, The Meyerowitz Stories and his transformative, much-hyped turn in Uncut Gems, while also giving an afterlife to such grim acid flashbacks as Grown Ups and Big Daddy.
They know what they’re doing with him: the quality threshold, before and since Gems, has shot up. A decade ago, the prospect of Sandler attempting his own variation on Jerry Maguire might have given me chills. But here we have Hustle – the tale of one man’s struggle in the world of basketball scouting – which isn’t half bad.
LeBron James produced it, which is one explanation for the dozens of real-life NBA stars who turn up here, either playing themselves or minor characters. The second lead is Juancho Hernangómez, a 6ft 9 player for the Utah Jazz, who plays a street ball phenomenon from Spain, Bo Cruz, whom Sandler’s down-on-his-luck Stanley Sugarman plucks from obscurity.
Stanley’s faith in this one player is such that he pulls the plug on a long-standing job with the Philadelphia 76ers, whose beloved owner (Robert Duvall) has lately died, leaving a prickly son (Ben Foster, having a blast playing an entitled jerk) to fill his shoes. Bo doesn’t impress on his first try-out, because a rival player gets in his head. He needs to have that temper trained out of him, since in every department of his freakishly good blocking and shooting, he’s clearly world-class.
You don’t make a sports drama set in Philadelphia without invoking Rocky at some point – cue several montages of Bo doing early morning runs up some steps to get in shape. He’s a young dad supporting his own single mother, who has no idea how megabucks NBA careers are built, and needs Stanley’s word that all this graft will pay off. It’s on the court that Bo regularly blows it, despite the raw potential everyone can spot.
Sandler’s cringey attempts to dub him “the Cruz missile” are right in the star’s self-mocking comfort zone, as are the many comments flying around about how chubby Stanley’s getting, thanks to his default hotel-room suppers snaffling KFC. There’s warm support from Queen Latifah, never unwelcome, as his ever-loving wife.
Hustle is all-round-solid if clearly routine stuff, without much of an element of surprise tucked away for its third act – unless you count the continued-redemption-of-Sandler factor. What keeps it on its feet is the snappy direction of Jeremiah Zagar, a Philly native who shows off his home town with unmistakable pride, and has a lot of vivid strategies for what the camera’s doing (there are more time-hopping match cuts than I could count) or which song to put on top.
Zagar’s got game. Coaxing this credible a performance from Hernangómez, an acting novice, is a lot harder than just letting him loose on the court: it needs exactly the kind of emotional attention Bo’s getting from Stanley. Meanwhile, coaxing Sandler into a non-pushy, amusingly rueful star turn, where he comes right in on the film’s wavelength, reminds you how capably he can shoulder a vehicle without having to convince you he’s some profound revelation. The pushy one was Uncut Gems, an overcooked novelty routine as far his performance went. It’s this kind of thing that’s Sandler’s real bread and butter, and he knows it.
15 cert, 117 min. In cinemas and on Netflix now