- Classification: R; 117 minutes
- Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
- Written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne
- Starring Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez and Queen Latifah
- Streaming on Netflix starting June 10
In 2019, Adam Sandler joked (?) to Howard Stern that if the Academy Awards snubbed his genuinely excellent performance in Uncut Gems, then the actor would “come back and [make a movie] that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay.” The Sandman hasn’t followed through yet – his post-Gems “comedy” Hubie Halloween is terrible, but it was filmed long before Oscar voters played stupid – and I can’t say that his latest Netflix project, the basketball drama Hustle, fulfills the promise/threat, either.
Don’t mistake Hustle for a Safdie Brothers-level achievement à la Gems – director Jeremiah Zagar’s new film is a mostly straight-ahead underdog sports story, with a few stylistic flourishes and enough stamps of brand approval from the NBA that it plays like the well-funded fever dream of commissioner Adam Silver (in actuality, it’s produced by Sandler and LeBron James, so we’re not far off). But there is enough to admire here that Hustle is leagues beyond Sandler’s typical streaming output.
Playing a fast-food-addicted scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, Sandler is in peak super-schlub mode, channelling his average-bro frustrations into the faded hopes and dashed dreams of hero Stan Sugarman. Once a top basketball prospect, Stan is currently roaming the world searching for the next big thing, although he longs to stick closer to home to spend time with his family (including Queen Latifah as Sandler’s most charming on-screen love since his Drew Barrymore era) and try his hand at coaching. After stumbling upon a young, driftless construction worker (real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) in Spain who might be a top pro-ball prospect, Stan puts everything on the line for one last shot at the big time.
Basically the cinematic goo that arrives after tossing My Giant, The Air Up There, The Way Back, and Draft Day into a blender, Hustle isn’t fooling anyone with its faux-prestige ambitions. But there is something undeniably charming about the film in spite of itself, its familiar but pleasant narrative momentum and tense on-court action wrapped around a lovably scruffy lead performance from a man who knows how to turn it on when he wants to.
Sandler isn’t pushing himself hard as he might in the hands of the Safdies, Noah Baumbach, or Paul Thomas Anderson – filmmakers who know just what the actor is capable of, and who relish the opportunity to nudge, prod and poke the star in all of a performer’s many uncomfortable places. Nor does Sandler reach deep into his gonzo-comedy soul to deliver something as intensely committed as his brilliantly demented work in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan or That’s My Boy (I’m serious). But then again, Hustle doesn’t require anything more than what Sandler delivers – this is a stand-up-and-cheer story in which the actor gets you on the right side of the game, and keeps you there until you’re predictably on your feet.
Sure, Zagar (also known for 2018′s well-admired indie drama We the Animals) has made a film that is approximately 32 per cent training montages. And it quickly becomes clear why most films employ more professional actors than professional basketball players (though Hernangómez does a fine enough job with the untested hot-head archetype). But given the current states of both Netflix original films and Sandler’s oeuvre (and the disastrous things that happen when both meet, à la Murder Mystery), Hustle is a relative gem, cut just right.
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