Movie Review: ‘Hustle’ is a Swish for Sandler
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Writers: Taylor Materne and Will Fetters
Stars: Adam Sandler, Kenny Smith, Anthony Edwards, and Juancho Hernangómez
Synopsis: A basketball scout discovers a phenomenal street ball player while in Spain and sees the prospect as his opportunity to get back into the NBA.
Adam Sandler is often seen as acting marmite; there is no doubting this man’s talent when the brightest spotlight has shone upon him for all to see, delivering a handful of incredibly memorable performances in the thick weeds of comedic hits and misses. Sandler is often tarred with the joker paintbrush – which is fair seeing as his career consists of crude comedy after crude comedy – but this brush is what also makes us forget that this man can deliver when called upon. His serious roles are few and far between; he surprised us all in Punch Drunk Love, he mesmerized us in Uncut Gems, and now we have Hustle, a film that might just be the most authentic and believable role of his career.
How often does the term “rags-to-riches” surface when describing a heartfelt film about a true underdog? Well, there really isn’t another way to describe Hustle, seeing as Sandler’s protegee is wearing literal rags when we find him, and finds himself on the brink of an NBA career – I hear they make quite the salary in the NBA. The difference between this rags-to-riches sports film is that we are focused on two characters equally; two underdogs fighting against all the odds hoping that their two-man team gets them to the finals. There is no doubt about it though, Sandler is the shining light, and without him, it wouldn’t be as effective. His love for basketball obviously plays a huge role because it makes his character truly credible, and the way he seamlessly incorporates his jester side into the persona takes a lot of skill that not many people possess.
I’ll tell you what though, yes Sandler is the undoubted MVP, but Hustle is filled with All-Star caliber amateur actors too, and it’s such a breath of fresh air. Who’d have thought it, several sports stars who can actually act instead of being typically one-dimensional robots? Kenny “The Jet” Smith, as a talent agent, is loose and charming; this performance alone eclipses anything his Inside the NBA co-workers have ever accomplished – sorry Shaq, but Kazaam just didn’t quite cut it. Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards is another who thrives by just being… well, himself, it seems. He’s loving the label of the pantomime villain, and who knows, an acting career could develop for this future All-Star. But the array of basketball talent is spearheaded by the very surprising turn from Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez, who not only entertains with his assured basketball skills (where were they when you played for the Celtics?) but also delivers a delicate performance for someone so raw and inexperienced.
Jeremiah Zagar’s new film focuses on the disheveled Stanley Sugerman (Sandler), beaten down by his excessive traveling around the world working as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. A man who hasn’t been home for his daughter’s birthday for nine years and is constantly locking horns with Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), son of the franchise owner. Stanley’s dream finally comes true when he is promoted to assistant coach by the owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), whose words of wisdom echo through the rest of the film: “never back down”. After an untimely death forces Stanley back on the road and into the sights of Vince again, who is now doing his best Lex Luthor impression, complete with a spinning chair and bulbous head, Stanley must find the missing ingredient for the 76ers title aspirations.
His search takes him to Spain where, after a failed scouting assignment, Stanley stumbles on a street game where a talented hustler called Bo Cruz (Juancho) is showcasing his talent, all while wearing his work boots. After convincing Cruz to travel with him to Philadelphia, Stanley must now turn this raw but gifted young man into a future NBA superstar, so both men can achieve their dreams. It all sounds very formulaic and predictable, which it kind of is, and like any film in this mold, it is full of cliches, laden with messages of hope and self-belief and overcoming the odds against adversity. It’s an age-old narrative tool, but with a few minor tweaks here and there, and a much-welcomed modernization, it nearly becomes unique for the genre.
This is a sports film after all, and the basketball and training scenes are a cut above the rest (and there are a lot of them). The talent is real, which makes the sequences more authentic – it’s as if we’re watching real pick-up games at times. But Zak Mulligan’s cinematography is great at elevating these segments; the framing is taken straight out of a western as the camera locks in on the eyes of the two dueling NBA stars – who is going to blink first? And this is Philadelphia, let’s not forget, and it wouldn’t be Philly without a typically intense training montage weaved into it somewhere, one that Rocky Balboa would be proud of. However, the unconventional camera angles, the framing, and the rapid jump cuts work together like a perfectly oiled machine and are essential ingredients for success – like an old Nike commercial on performance enhancers.
Hustle doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is a highly enjoyable film that offers a great experience and one that NBA fans will love. Sandler is so assured in his role, that it’s the most comfortable he’s ever been in a film, which can likely be chalked up to his love of the sport. He could even be portraying a version of himself and he’s enjoying every second of it. This is now the debate with Sandler: should he hang up his clown shoes and squirty cream (the films that have paid him so well over the years) and fully concentrate on heart-warmingly raw dramas, or are the fleeting appearances in such films what makes them memorable when they do come about?