Adam Sandler did career-best work as a New York City jeweler in deep basketball-gambling trouble in Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2019 Uncut Gems, only to be wrongly denied his first Academy Award nomination. Having been overlooked for that critical darling, which paired him with Boston Celtics great Kevin Garnett, Sandler takes a different tack in making a case for dramatic respectability—if not Oscar gold—with hustle, a sports film in which he plays a revered scout for the Celtics’ Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia 76ers. Far removed from the maddening anxiety of his prior NBA-themed outing, Sandler’s latest him is an inspirational athletic story that the superstar comedian is more than capable of carrying. Yet cut from a woefully familiar cloth, and thus weighed down by a preponderance of clichés, it’s a feel-good movie that—per basketball talk—has no hops.
Produced by LeBron James and made with the participation of the NBA, hustle is the sort of by-the-books sports affair that, once upon a time, would have been right at home running on a Saturday afternoon cable-TV loop, and it’ll serve a similar comfort-food function on Netflix, where it premieres on June 8 (following a brief theatrical run beginning June 3). Sandler is Stanley Sugarman, who spends his days and nights—and weeks, months, and years—taking cabs and planes from one international gym and hotel to another on behalf of the Sixers in search of the Next Big Thing. It’s a tireless slog of fast food meals and phone calls to his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull), and full of names of disappointing prospects crossed off his endless list. Stanley is well-regarded by the organization’s owner (Robert Duvall), but he truly pines for a seat on the bench as a full-time coach. That dream finally becomes a reality, only to crumble when Duvall’s bigwig suddenly dies and the team comes under the control of his son (Ben Foster), who promptly rescinds Stanley’s promotion and sends him back out on the road.
Stanley is told that he’ll reclaim his coveted gig if he can find a player who’ll radically transform the Sixers’ fortunes. Consequently, heeding the advice of Duvall’s owner to “never back down,” Stanley perseveres, and his effort almost immediately pays off when he happens upon an outdoor streetball game in Spain where a veritable “unicorn” named Bo Cruz (real-life NBAer Juancho Hernangómez) is so dominant that, after the contest, he pockets cash by successfully betting that opponents can’t put the ball on the kidney against him. Stanley pursues Bo first on the bus (where his phone-translation app makes him sound like a sexual stalker) and then to the modest home Bo shares with his mother (María Botto) and daughter (Ainhoa Pillet). An impromptu video call with Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki proves Stanley’s bona fides, and his subsequent sales pitch—including the promise of a league-minimum $900,000 salary—does the trick, convincing raw-talent Bo to journey to the States for a chance at for hunger.
hustle sets this early scene with just enough delicacy and realistic basketball action to overshadow the creativity of its plot mechanics. For a time, that also holds true in Philadelphia, where Foster’s nominal villain refuses to heed Stanley’s counsel, thereby leaving the scout to support Bo himself in a hotel room where the 22-year-old racks up enormous food and pornography bills. Such humor treads perilously close to the sort peddled by Sandler’s bread-and-butter comedies, but director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals) keeps his eye on the uplifting ball, emphasizing the rapport that develops between Bo and Stanley, two seemingly nonsensical men trying to pull off underdog triumphs in the face of skepticism and naysayers while simultaneously overcoming past traumas. For Bo, that’s the disappearance of his father, a threat to his custody rights, and a prior assault charge. For Stanley, meanwhile, it’s a college drunk-driving incident that mangled his hand and, with it, his shot of him at March Madness glory.
Despite Sandler’s well-publicized love of basketball, hustle can’t persuasively posit Stanley—the butt of constant fat jokes—as a former pro-level NCAA player. Then again, the film barely breaks a sweat selling its fantasy at all, instead putting the brunt of its energy into diligently rehashing time-worn maneuvers, including a series of pivotal setbacks for Bo (involving a trash-talking adversary) that threatens to derail his journey to the NBA. Bo’s history is casually mentioned far more than it’s territory or felt, and the third act is full of calamitous farewells, rom-com-grade races through airports, and contrived twists of fate that push things into fairy-tale. A cornucopia of cameos from NBA stars, coaches and personalities (led by Kenny Smith as Stanley’s talent-agent friend) routinely do the heavy-lifting when it comes to lending the proceedings an air of authenticity.
“Bo’s history is casually mentioned far more than it’s territory or felt, and the third act is full of calamitous farewells, rom-com-grade races through airports, and contrived twists of fate that push things into fairy-tale.”
Zagar energizes Bo’s games with shot-countershot close-ups that create a winning sense of one-on-one intensity, and his generally muted direction prevents things from devolving into treacle. In that regard, he’s aided by a likably competent turn by Hernangómez and a far more endearing one from his headliner. Now in his mid-fifties, Sandler has retained his boyish charm and goofy wit even as he’s acquired a world-weariness in his eyes and body language, and those qualities are all put to excellent use in hustle, no matter the rote motions that Stanley goes through on his path to redemption. The actor is so comfortable in this NBA milieu that the film’s best moments involves him analytically eyeing young players in far-off lands or working Bo to the bone in drill after drill (including a recurring bit in which he forces him to run up a hill at dawn). There’s a natural, lived-in quality to his performance that allows him to elicit a level of engagement that Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ script does not otherwise earn.
Paling in comparison to the similar (and superior) Ben Affleck vehicle The Way Back, hustle never works hard enough to generate the comeback-saga pathos it craves. Still, if it likely won’t net Sandler any Academy Award recognition, it’s further proof that there’s more to the actor’s game than simply man-child ridiculousness.