Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a highly-regarded scout for NBA side the Philadelphia 76ers, who dreams of moving to a coaching role. While on a scouting trip to Spain, he stumbles into the path of Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a basketball prodigy in the making who has lain undiscovered owing to his poor background and an arrest for an assault several years earlier. Over the objections of his flailing boss Vince (Ben Foster) and with the support of his long-suffering wife Teresa (Queen Latifah), Sugerman brings Cruz to the United States, and embarks on a one-man crusade to get him into the NBA.
Adam Sandler is a bit of a conundrum at times, isn’t he? In 2020 he gave us what was genrally percevied as remarkable performance in Uncut Gems, a role that screamed “paradigm shift” for an actor that we have gotten used to seeing in the worst of the worst, whether it is theatrically or on streaming (I was less complimentary, but I recognise what it meant for his career). Then he turned around and did Hubie Halloween along with bit parts in The Last Missy and Home Team, and suddenly it seemed like it might all have been a dream. Hustle appears to have come a little bit out of nowhere in that context, with a little known director and a little know writing team, but it most certainly is the kind of thing that seems more in the Uncut Gems range for an actor who just can’t seem to figure out if he wants to be remembered for his later career dramas or his low brow comedies.
Which is a bit of shame because, to re-iterate, Sandler can act. He can act well. And he doesn’t need to give us any pratfalls, jokes that revolve around fecal matter or extended screaming to showcase that. Hell, this guy used to make comedies, like The Wedding Singer, that showcased those things. But there are so far and in-between of his other, less glorious, filmography examples that something like Hustle can still sneak up behind you and offer a metaphorical mugging. Sandler acts here, and acts really well. His Sugerman is a really wonderful mix of hope and frustration: a person who is carrying so much from the expectations of his family, the weight of previous failures, a desire to one-up his asshole of a boss and the hope that Cruz might actually by the one. It’s a big old ball of mixed emotions, and Sandler portrays it all so well, the kind of internal cacophony that explains how Sugermen does what he does, to the point of lies and subterfuge, and yet never comes off as anything other than someone that we really want to root for, as much as or more than we do for Cruz. One of my problems with Uncut Gems was how hard it was to get behind a character like Howard who was so unlikeable, but with a different role Sandler gets beyond this issue.
Hernangomez is worth noting too. For a significant period of Hustle he’s a bit of a blank canvas, the unmoulded clay for Sandler’s Sugerman to play around with, but he comes into his own eventually. Cruz is a man who had a dream and then saw it snatched away by the crushing reality of life, not unlike Sugerman, but his background and life since has combined to turn him into the kind of person who buries the negativity under a mask of almost-serene confidence. It’s the moments when this mask slips that Hernangomez, a player with the Utah Jazz currently, is able to really showcase what he can do. He and Sugerman start out as mentor and student, but eventually manage to reach a sort of parity when he realises that he and Sugerman are not so different in fundamental ways. This is basic storytelling, but Hustle carries it off well: and when you get the fundamentals right, lots else can follow.
Hustle isn’t the kind of film that breaks down barriers in terms of narrative – it really is a lot like Rocky in structure (it sort of has to be, being set in Philadelphia), only the training montages are longer – but it does work. A large portion of the second act is given over to what in other hands would be a fairly dull set of scenes dedicated to Sugerman putting Cruz through his paces ahead of the NBA Combine, but it works because of the charm of Sandler, the eagerness of Hernangomez, and the way that the two are able to spice up what could be otherwise subpar scenes. Take for example a moment when Sugerman comes to realise that Cruz is overly-susceptible to on-court insults from opponents: a resulting three-point drill becomes vastly more entertaining when Sugerman starts peppering in insinuations that Cruz’ mother is a whore, in a bid to toughen him up. Sandler is thus able to siphon away from his comedy core, while also keeping things dramatic: Cruz presumably has plenty of experience with such a scenario in real life, and can tap into that. The result from scenes like this is a well-flowing story that is able to connect with the audience on a number of levels. This isn’t rocket-science. Hustle was a film that made me appreciate the simple things when it comes to filmmaking in a way that I hadn’t for a while I suppose, is what I am trying to say. Director Jeremiah Zager background as a documentarian probably helps, as he has an obvious urge to present things in as real a manner as possible, and that only helps a project like this.
It’s not perfect. The Vince character needed to be more fleshed-out, and his part of the story is reduced bit-by-bit until his arc is settled off-screen. Sugerman’s relationship with his daughter is under-baked for how important it is set up as early on. And there are times when the litany of celebrity cameos starts to overwhelm things. But generally Hustle is a film that knows what it is and doesn’t outstay its welcome, so I would call these forgivable sins.
Any kind of sports movie really will live or die on how well it portrays that sport visually, and in that regard I think that Hustle rates pretty highly. Zager gives us a kinetic fly-on-the-court style view of what basketball really is, his camera zipping around after Cruz and his opponents like one of them is wearing a Go-Pro on his forehead. Every score, every slam off the backboard, every jostle and bit of trash-talk are picked up in a manner that allows the viewer to feel as if they are extremely connected to what is happening, far beyond the status of a distant spectator. That intimacy is really important as we come to understand the mental aspects, positive and negative, of Cruz’ game, that you can only experience in such a manner. Zager takes full advantage of the approach, and the end result is mesmerising. Like the very best of sports movies, Hustle is one that is clearly made by people who adore that sport, and that affection is very obvious. But there are other things to appreciate on the visual front: an early montage where Sugerman travels the globe looking for the next star, signified by his efforts to try every McDonalds and KFC he can find (one target on that trip claims to be a 22-year-old diamond in the rough, who turns out to have a full grown son); the dichotomy between the elder 76ers owner who respects Sugerman with intimate conversations and his no-good son who prefers to do his talking from a cavernous office; and an effort to go whole-hog on the concept of social media as a force for change that lights up the hour mark.
On a list of the films from the sporting sub-genre, Hustle would have to rate fairly highly in my estimation. It passes the key tests for that descriptor, in making a sports movie that is not truly about a sport, and still finding a way to showcase that sport in a way that is dynamic, intimate and interesting. Sandler steps out of the shadow of his worse back catalogue to showcase what he can do again, and is ably matched by debutante. The story is engaging, the cinematography entertaining and not since High Flying Bird have I seen a piece of media about basketball that manages to really make you understand the fascination of that sport. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).