Sandler shines in this above-average sports drama
I don’t know a lot about basketball. I know the sport involves a ball and a couple of baskets (that much is evident from the name of the game) but other than that, I am as clueless about basketball as I am about most other sports. As such, I didn’t know if I would enjoy Hustle, the latest contribution from Adam Sandler for Netflix. I certainly didn’t enjoy High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s 2019 movie about the sport, so after seeing that overly talky and complicated drama, I wasn’t exactly ready for another potentially boring basketball movie.
After reading the synopsis for Hustle, it seemed to resemble that aforementioned snooze-fest so my expectations were low. Thankfully, the movie was far more entertaining than I expected it to be. While I didn’t understand the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that take place within the story, I was still gripped by the plight of its main characters and their need to find redemption after suffering personal setbacks during their respective journeys.
The movie tells the fictional story of Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler), a washed-up talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. While on an assignment in Spain, he spots Bo Cruz, a young construction worker hustling on a basketball court. Cruz is clearly a basketball star-in-the-making, which is good news for Sugerman, who has been struggling to find a player worthy enough to be considered for the NBA.
After a few comical scenes of Sugerman trying to engage with this promising young player, the two men fly Stateside where possible fame and fortune await. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan when Cruz is given the opportunity to showcase his skills. He screws up on court after being taunted by another player and this wins him no favours with team manager Vince (Ben Foster) who decides he doesn’t want him on his team.
Sugerman rage quits after Vince’s decision and decides to take Cruz on as an independent agent. The rest of the movie follows their journey together as Sugerman invites Cruz into his home, bonds with the tattooed giant, and tries to give them both the opportunity to improve their standing within the NBA.
Sandler gives a great performance as the down-on-his-luck talent scout, relying less on his comedic instincts and more on the vulnerable side of his acting personality. He is as good here as he was in the exceptional Uncut Gems, and proves once again that he can be so much more than the comedy clown figure that he is most well known for. The actor needs to star in more movies like this one, away from such comic duds as Grown Ups and The Ridiculous 6, as he is better able to shine in his more seriocomic roles.
He is ably matched by real-life basketball player Juancho Hernangomez who takes on the role of Cruz. He is immensely likeable in his first screen role and while he probably won’t quit his sport for acting, it would still be good to see him act in another movie, provided he doesn’t go the route of LeBron James (who produced Hustle) and act with cartoon characters in another Space Jam.
The two men are at the heart of this underdog sports story but they are surrounded by a talented cast of actors, including Queen Latifah and Robert Duvall, and there are several basketball legends who also make their presence known both on and off the court. It’s thanks to their performances that the movie never falters, even when it threatens to get bogged down in backroom politics and sporting movie clichés.
There is nothing particularly original in Hustle as we have seen variations of this movie before. The training montages of Rocky will come to mind when you watch Cruz prepare for his upcoming games and in its tale of a man trying to win his way back into the NBA after an extended absence, you might be reminded of The Way Back, which starred Ben Affleck as a former basketball phenom who worked his way back into the game as a sports coach.
But despite the similarities to movies past, Hustle still manages to engage, partly because of the thrilling scenes of basketball that director Jeremiah Zagar ably manages to provide and partly because of the two main characters, who we are keen to see succeed, despite the various odds that are stacked against them.
It’s to the director’s credit that this is a more relatable movie than the aforementioned High Flying Bird which was mostly impenetrable to those not well-versed in basketball talk and the business side of the game. Soderbergh’s movie was well-received by critics, despite my intolerance of it, but it didn’t have the heart or the soul of Hustle which is a much warmer, more interesting movie than that dialogue-heavy snoozer.
I still don’t know much about basketball after seeing the movie but that’s okay. Hustle was an enjoyable watch, despite my inability to know the difference between a double-dribble and a double-double, and while I wouldn’t exactly call this a slam-dunk of a movie, it still held my interest. This was partly because of the chemistry between Sandler and Hernangomez, and partly because of the triumph against the odds-type story that never seems to get old.
So, no matter your understanding of basketball, you might still get something from this one. It’s a sweet, funny, and inspirational story that touches the heart in all of the right places. It might not inspire you to get onto the basketball court but it might give you hope for Adam Sandler as an actor, as he didn’t drop the ball this time around.
Verdict - 7/10