One of the most controversial points of debate in my house is my wife’s insistence that there are two universal truths: there is no such thing as a bad macaroni and cheese or a bad Adam Sandler movie. They are his two greatest loves, and I like to remind him that cafeterias exist, just like Don’t mess with the Zohan.
Suffice it to say, I don’t share his dogged determination when it comes to Sandler films. So my expectations were at rock bottom for Hustlethe latest sports film from Sandler’s “Happy Madison” production company – which gave us the final Home team, the movie about Sean Payton that was so bad it hurt me. I am amazed to tell you now not only Hustle really good, it might be one of my favorite basketball movies of all time.
Stanley Sugarman (Sandler) is a longtime international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose aspirations have always been to get off the road and become a coach. His dream finally comes true when team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duval) informs Stanley that he is going to the bench – only to die before the promotion is achieved.
Forced to deal with new owner Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), with whom he still has heads-up, Stanley is back on the road with a mandate: find a difference maker, or be relegated to staying on the road as a as a scout forever.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to sports moves. Hell, the story is no different than 1994 The air up there, but without the disgusting racial stereotypes of Africans. However, where Hustle exceeds is to take the concept of “hidden gem” and recontextualize it in a way that feels real, fresh and unique.
That’s largely down to Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangomez, who plays Bo Cruz, the Spanish basketball prodigy Stanley finds in Mallorca while on a trip to see another player. Hernangomez is an on-screen revelation, showing incredible range as he deftly weaves his basketball chops with true dramatic range that the role demands. Yes, there are the same “troubled player from a broken home” tropes we’ve seen in sports movies before – but the progression of Bo and Stanley’s relationship from player-coach to father-son is organic. and looks natural.
I will not tell Hustle is perfect, by all means. There are times when the film’s treatment of Bo is inconsistent. At one point, he is a provider, immersed in construction to support his young daughter and mother. A few scenes later, he’s infantilized, worshiping free bread on the plane to the United States and buying five cheesesteaks at once. Bo’s uneven treatment is a small issue, but takes away from what the character really is: a young man who feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, finally having someone to lean on in Stanley. .
Much of what gives Hustle his chops come from the ungodly amount of NBA involvement in this film. Co-produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s “SpringHill Company,” it’s clear that a lot of favors were called for this film. Anthony Edwards stars as the hilariously named antagonist “Kermit Wilts,” a much-touted prospect from Kentucky who grows frustrated with Bo’s rising fame – but beyond that, the film is littered with cameos from some of the most big names in NBA history. Julius Erving, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley all make appearances – and that’s before we get to the other current NBA stars with their fingerprints everywhere Hustle.
One of the film’s final scenes is Bo’s buyout game, a privately arranged pick-up game between top prospects and current players, as NBA front office personnel watch. In this sequence alone, you can count the number of stars that have come to work on Hustle, from Trae Young, Kyle Lowry and Jordan Clarkson, to Celtics general manager Brad Stevens – as well as the majority of the 76ers, who are frequent throughout Philadelphia-based history. The notable omission is Joel Embiid, who is mentioned but sadly never appears on screen.
The epilogue rocks the redemption of Stanley and Bo with a surprise that holds Hustle to be too generic. We are truly left with one of the best sports movies of the last decade and one of the best basketball movies of all time.
These are the kinds of films I hope Sandler will continue with. It’s an easier watch than the 2019 one Uncut Gems, but shows that the comedian is at his best when he’s toning things down. It’s clear that everyone involved in this project has been invested in telling a good basketball story, and that’s what makes it thrive over something like Home teamwhich tried so hard to be a comedy that it lost all semblance of humor.
Let’s be real: Sandler’s Netflix movie series has been mostly awful, but Hustle absolutely worth taking the time and watching. It’s fun, it’s heartfelt, the basketball scenes are awesome, and it’s a breath of fresh air.