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edge staff writer


Respect the ‘Hustle’

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It’s kind of incredible to think that Adam Sandler has been a major part of the pop cultural firmament for three decades at this point. Love him or hate him – and it’s likely that you have one of those opinions – you can’t deny the impact that he’s had.

But while many tend to dismiss him out of hand for his (admittedly uneven) filmography – and make no mistake, he’s made more than his share of clunkers over the years – he’s also got a deep well of talent, and when he delves into it, it can be something special.

Sandler’s latest is “Hustle,” an original film streaming on Netflix. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar from a screenplay by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the movie stars Sandler as a longtime NBA scout who places everything on the line for a prospect in whose potential he deeply believes. As performances go, it’s one of his best – more Safdie Brothers than Happy Madison – and while it doesn’t quite reach the dramatic heights of his performative apex, it gets awfully close.

It is a film about family, about regret and ambition … and a really good basketball movie, one that offers some surprisingly strong and nuanced performances from unexpected sources; in particular, the turn from NBA player Juancho Hernangomez as the prospect in question is almost shockingly good. The combination of interpersonal relationships and pro basketball nuts-and-bolts turns out to be a winning team.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s been working for the team for years, traveling constantly in search of the next big thing. A diamond in the rough. An – forgive me – uncut gem. The travel wears on his family – wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) – but it’s all in pursuit of his dream to become a coach.

Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) is the owner of the 76ers; he’s got a soft spot for Stan from back in Stan’s college playing days. After a contentious meeting where Stan is at odds with Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) on a prospect’s merits, Rex decides to put Stan on the bench. It’s finally happened – Stan is a coach.

However, when tragedy strikes and Vince takes over operating the team, he decides to flex his authority and put Stan back out on the road, tasking him with finding the missing piece. Stan is furious, but resigned – it’s the job. He hits the road again, winding up in Spain, but when the player he’s there to scout is unavailable, he stumbles on a streetball game being utterly dominated by Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez).

This is it – his ticket back. But when Vince and the rest of the front office refute Stan’s rave reviews, he takes it upon himself to bring the guy in. Of course, it isn’t that easy, even with the help of Stan’s former teammate, player agent Leon Rich (Kenny Smith). Bo’s talent is immense, but so too are his struggles; ultimately, the one person who truly believes in him is Stan, even as he puts up uneven performances.

Bo faces off against some of the best prospects in the game – including presumptive lottery pick and potential number-one Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards – no, not that one, the basketball player) – and shows flashes, but issues both on and off the court threaten to torpedo this opportunity … and Stan’s career.

“Hustle” is an engaging and occasionally intense sports movie, one that makes room for both narrative drama and basketball set pieces. It’s rare for a movie to provide excellence in both respects – maybe you get good storytelling and ho-hum sports; maybe the athletic stuff is stunning, but the narrative is sub-par – so this is a bit of a surprise. It really is a film that does what it sets out to do and does it well.

When you put Adam Sandler at the center of the frame in this kind of serious film, you’re taking a chance. Yes, we’ve seen him excel in dramatic roles before, but there’s still a bit of a stigma attached to him. But there’s little of the explosive man-child here; instead, we see Sandler subdued, finding ways to subvert his own tendencies in a manner that humanizes him and gives him a depth of character.

It works.

It works because we haven’t seen a lot of movies like this, films that dig into the tertiary parts of the NBA ecosystem. There’s a sausage-making vibe to “Hustle,” a level of insight into the inner workings of pro sports and the people on the periphery who make it all go. The machinations, the conflicts between the eye tests and the advanced analytics, the disingenuousness and the backstabbing – it’s all here.

And it works because they found guys capable of making the on-court action look not just passable but genuinely good. This film is littered with actual professional basketball players and figures from around the league. It is very much an NBA movie, and as such has a vested interest in making the play look real. And it does, thanks to the talent involved.

We’ve talked about Sandler already – he’s rarely been better than this, and never by much – and how he grounded and humanized this grizzled basketball lifer. But the supporting cast is a huge part of what makes this work. Queen Latifah is great, per usual. Duvall’s not around much, but he’s great. Ben Foster is the perfect amount of smug superiority. Folks like Heidi Gardner and Jaleel White have small, but vital turns.

But it’s the ballplayers that really make it. Hernangomez is legitimately good in this role. Not “good for an athlete” good – GOOD good. Not to say that it would translate to other projects, but here, he’s excellent, holding his own across from Sandler throughout while also performing on the court. Anthony Edwards is actually kind of delightful in a “love to hate him” way as Kermit Wilts; he’s got a couple of great scenes. Kenny Smith is solid as Leon. And yes, there are a lot of guys playing themselves out there – no one really stands out, but then again … no one really stands out. All told, that’s got to be a win.

And really, that’s the thing. Sports movies that feature good performances AND good athletic action are few and far between. It makes sense that we’d get one from Sandler, whose love of the game is well-documented. It’s his movie, but he succeeds thanks to quality on-and off-court work from a strong ensemble and production team.

In short, respect the “Hustle.”

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 June 2022 14:42


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