Movie Review: With ‘Hustle,’ Adam Sandler Continues His Own Redemption Arc

Adam Sandler in “Hustle”.

Once upon a time, Adam Sandler promised us a movie that would be “so bad on purpose” to make the world pay in case he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his frenetic and haunting performance in the 2019 film “Uncut Gems.” ” In typical Academy fashion, Sandler was snubbed, and so the world braced itself for dregs the likes of which the cinematic world had never seen before.

But alas, Sandler’s next movie, “Hubie Halloween,” was decidedly not the worst movie ever made — not even the worst movie Sandler ever made — and actually quite charming in its own way. And Sandler’s latest film, “Hustle,” is the complete opposite of “bad on purpose.”

Instead, it’s the kind of movie where we wistfully say things like “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” – the kind of movie that, in another lifetime, would have drawn mass crowds to the cinema at the instead of being dumped unceremoniously on Netflix in early June. An inspirational sports flick right in the middle that showcases the softer side of an actor who’s been deceptively meticulous about what character 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 still managing not to sacrifice the comedic instincts that raised him in the first place. There’s “Uncut Gems,” a critically acclaimed film starring Sandler as an eccentric jeweler with a gambling problem that has been heralded as one of the best performances of his career. Even “Hubie Halloween” – a clumsy farce of a movie – essentially has Sandler playing the role of the straight man, a naive, meek jerk stuck in the middle of a murder investigation. And now he’s given us “Hustle,” a movie that’s as much about a second chance for its main characters as it is about a sequel to a comeback story for its lead actor.

“Hustle” centers on professional basketball scout Stanley Sugerman (Sandler), a bit of a schlub who works for the Philadelphia 76ers but yearns for a coaching job on the sidelines. While on a reconnaissance trip to Spain, he comes across a street player named Bo Cruz (real NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) and decides Bo is his last chance to make something of himself. The rest of the cast is filled with Hollywood legends – Robert Duvall as 76ers owner, Queen Latifah as Stanley’s wife, Teresa – and basketball legends – Kenny Smith, Doc Rivers, even Dr. J himself.

Well-made sports movies, just like romantic comedies, have the ability to soak you in like a hot bath. You might know all the beats, but if they’re executed well, who really cares if they’re predictable? From its opening montage, “Hustle” deals with this specific type of comfort. Stanley’s reconnaissance trips pass us by in a whirlwind of dimly lit hotels, cramped planes and empty fast food containers. The motivational and driving soundtrack feels slightly incongruous with the less than luxurious life we ​​see Stanley living – life moves fast, but countries merge, taxis outside airports all look alike, and life on the road becomes lonely. The edit perfectly defines Stanley as a guy with all the basketball knowledge and drive in the world, but also a little down on his luck, a little over the hill, wondering if that’s what his will be. life forever or if there’s a second chance on the road.

Stanley’s fictional fate resembles Sandler’s professional one. Sandler’s
The “comeback” in recent years has less to do with its box office draw – it continues to be as bankable as ever and recently signed a $250 million deal with Netflix – and more to do with the proving something to those who don’t. take it seriously, while retaining the personality that got it here. If “Uncut Gems” found Sandler leaning into his absurd tendencies, stepping up his vocal mannerisms and using his physique to portray anxiety in its highest form, “Hustle” finds him backtracking, finding grooves between his signature , his over-the-top style and dad-core sensibility.

Anyone who’s seen an Adam Sandler movie knows he yelled a bit, abruptly turning into a humorous tantrum with a howl that feels like his vocal cords have been run over by a cheese grater. In “Uncut Gems”, this cry becomes heavy with fear, almost mad at the thought of losing a bet. But in “Hustle,” it takes on a brutality that perfectly encapsulates a man at the end of his rope, brimming with almost tearful despair, whether he’s begging the powers that be to give Bo a chance or giving a speech. of motivation. Sandler’s trajectory over the past few years further proves his propensity to bring real emotion to a scene, despite the sneers 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’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Reign Over Me,” or “Uncut Gems” — we all act surprised every time.

Beyond Sandler’s performance, the film falls into some of your typical sports movie pitfalls, but is able to eclipse the others. Queen Latifah is cast in the typical “coach‘s wife” role, by turns nagging and helpful when the script calls for it. If she wasn’t Queen Latifah and brimming with charm, the role might not work out 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 actors can’t really act. As Bo Cruz, Hernangómez handles the story’s dramatic beats with a smoothness and sensitivity you might not expect from a 6’9″ athlete, and Minnesota Timberwolves phenom Anthony Edwards is delightfully wicked as as Kermit Wilts, Bo’s main antagonist.

Long story short, show this movie to the basketball fans in your life – Sandler fans too. You will not regret it.

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