Hustle isn’t the first time Adam Sandler has done a movie more earnest than the Wedding Singer, nor is it his first sports movie (in fact probably half his movies are sports movies in one way or another). Hustle‘s modest innovation is to combine the two, and it’s a marriage that works so well that it seems now like kind of a no-brainer. What if the Sandman could be earnest and funny sometimes? Wild thought.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a down-on-his-luck NBA scout who favors knee-length golf muumuus and has missed his daughter’s “last nine birthdays.” Upon returning from his latest fast food-fueled, round-the-world search for elusive basketball talent, Stanley’s boss, the owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, played by Robert Duvall, finally offers Stanley his much-coveted position as assistant coach. But then the fucker goes and dies, leaving Sugerman without a benefactor and turning him into the sports version of Maximus from Gladiator, with Ben Foster, playing Duvall’s shithead son, as Sugerman’s Joaquin Phoenix.
Stanley goes back on the road and eventually bets it all on Bo Cruz, an undiscovered Spanish talent played by Juancho Hernangomez of the Utah Jazz, who Stanley calls “a cross between Scottie Pippen and a wolf.” Thus turning Hustle into a sort of boy-meets-stud motivational brom-com in the vein of The Blind Side.
The fact that Hustle gets to use the real 76ers name and logos and stars a current NBA star as its co-lead should give you a clue as to the level of the NBA’s participation here. Virtually every NBA personality and second-tier-famous player gets either a major role or cameo, notably Kenny Smith as Stanley’s former college teammate, Leon. This could’ve easily turned Hustle into an annoying collection of winking cameos, but instead director Jeremiah Zagar mostly feels like he’s using the NBA as much as they’re using him, their participation doing for Hustle what the Navy did for Top Gun: Maverick and vice versa. People like basketball, people like planes. The pitch doesn’t have to be complicated.
Which is to say that one of the reasons Hustle works as well is it does is that the basketball looks reasonably like real basketball. Anyone who’s seen virtually any other basketball movie knows how hard that is. There’s a montage early on, of Stanley hopping the globe to scout players who don’t quite cut it, in which Zagar is able to communicate, worldlessly, the respective reasons each player doesn’t have “it” through just a second or two of footage from each. This guy can’t finish, that guy doesn’t defend, this one is a hothead, that one has bone spurs, etc. That’s not only an impressive feat of direction and editing, but one of casting, production, and organization. I don’t know where Sandler found Zagar, and I assume if I dig hard enough I’m going to learn that Zagar went to summer camp with Allen Covert’s niece or something (Happy Madison turns nepotism into an art form, it’s one of Sandler’s most endearing qualities), but however it happened, they seem to have lucked out.
In one scene, Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks, a seven-foot-four-inch Serbian with an almost eight-foot wingspan who looks like a villain from a Roald Dahl book (which he has wisely parlayed into a lucrative side career as a human sight gag) tries to convince Sugerman that he’s only 22 and thus eligible for the draft. Hustle doesn’t attempt jokes with nearly the frequency you might expect of a Happy Madison production, but the ones it does tend to land.
Certainly, Sandler and company benefit from the basic tenet that people forgive a certain amount of corniness and predictability in a sports movie. That’s part of why we like sports, because of its capacity to make well-worn, bombastic language seem momentarily accurate and vital. So when Bo Cruz “chases a dream” and Stanley Sugerman “bets it all on one last shot,” we can accept it, because the sports world has its own baked-in metaphorical framework, elevating corny plot shorthand into things that actually happen.
Neither am I the first critic to point out that Adam Sandler is a pretty good actor when he plays it straight. Such is true here, with genuine chemistry between Sandler and Hernangomez anchoring the whole film. Admittedly, the bile did rise in my throat a bit when Cruz’s mother describes Sugerman as “tu roble,” your big strong oak (shoulda called this movie “Spanglish,” am I right?). Likewise, Cruz having a child young as a source of conflict is a bit laughable in light of… well, basically every athlete in any professional sports league. And for the love of God, could we please have a moratorium on “going viral” as a plot-resolving moonshot? I get that older folks regard social media fame as a kind of magic, and sometimes it is, but just yelling “abracadabra!” once in a while is not a satisfying storytelling device. It’s essentially just a new way of relying on wild coincidence.
Even as hokey and generally awful as The Blind Side is, it did at least address (if in an incredibly surface-level kind of way) the tangled motives of the “sports benefactor” role. The question of what material benefit Stanley is getting out of making Bo Cruz an NBA star gets swept up in the gears of the sports upliftment machine. It’s not as if I expected a Happy Madison sports movie to delve into introspection, but it does warrant at least a cursory explanation that Hustle fails to provide.
A few sour notes aside, Hustle is a solidly compelling, surprisingly watchable basketball movie. Whereas Happy Madison took a wild swing with their last effort, an attempt to turn Sean Payton’s Bountygate scandal into an underdog kids comedy in the vanity biopic Home Team (which would be a lock for Biggest Balls at the Hubris Oscars), Hustle is a much more modest attempt. It’s a straightforward sports movie, and it mostly succeeds through solid execution.