Juancho Hernangomez and Adam Sandler in hustle.
Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix
There’s always been a wish-fulfillment quality to Adam Sandler’s films, particularly his comedies. Sometimes, the wish in question is simply a desire to get away with his pals to some fun new location to shoot a picture. Occasionally, it involves one of his characters accomplishing a classic Guy Goal: being a great football player, or a stud secret agent, or an irresistible ladies’ man. Yes, this might describe the types of characters most movie stars play, but there’s something to Sandler’s never-try-too-hard persona and acting style that lends these films the aura of average-guy fantasy. Whether he’s playing a superstar quarterback in The Longest Yard or a plastic surgeon who strings beautiful women along in Just Go With It, he still basically looks and acts like Adam Sandler. It counters authenticity with honesty.
In Jeremiah Zagar’s Netflix sports drama hustle, however, the authenticity and the honesty finally come together. Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who travels the world scoping out hot-prospect basketball players and diamonds in the rough, evaluating them to see if they might have a future in the NBA. One night in Spain, he chances upon Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA forward Juancho Hernangómez), an enormously talented 22-year-old construction worker and single dad who regularly destroys everybody on the city’s outdoor public courts, blocking and dunking on them with abandon.
Just like that, Stanley realizes he might have discovered the Next Big Thing, and the film details his painstaking efforts to get Bo noticed by NBA teams. There are obstacles at every turn, to be sure, but they’re mild, standard-issue ones. Much of the film focuses on Bo working out, or Bo playing in games. (Those looking to work on their ball-control skills will find some nifty exercises among the many, many montages.) If you read the script on the page, you might send it back for a rewrite and ask for “more of everything” before it could become a proper movie with proper story beats.
And yet, hustle works, and it works beautifully, thanks to Sandler’s commitment. Stanley Sugerman seems close to the actor’s heart; one suspects that someone like Sandler would drop everything to become a scout or an assistant coach for an NBA team (even if it was for the 76ers, rivals to his beloved Knicks). As a result, the actor, who often delights in giving self-aware, hyperstylized turns, delivers an unadorned, shtick-free, surprisingly sincere performance. Stanley feels like a real person. Here’s a guy who is always tense, whether he’s fretting over something that’s gone wrong with Bo’s development or expressing joy over something that’s gone right. He expresses that tension in a highly relatable way, however. This is not the ostentatious angst of a movie protagonist but the ordinary anxiety of the common man. He could be you at your job.
There is an idea here, and it’s handled with surprising subtlety. Stanley has spent years traveling the world, and as a result has missed a lot of time with his family, with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). He knows this — hell, he says it — and yet he can’t help but continue to fix on work even when he’s back home. It makes for a contrast with Bo’s dedication to his own family — to the extent that he gets down in the dumps when his daughter and his mom are n’t nearby.
Again, it would have been easy to overdo this element of the story, to make Stanley a ruthless careerist who must be brought low before he can realize the error of his ways, and to use this difference in their characters to drive a rift between him and Bo. Who knows? Maybe proper screenplay construction would demand such escalation, so that the drama becomes more consequential. But the way hustle portrays these family dilemmas seems more true to life. Stanley is a devoted, loving dad who just isn’t able to be there. When he is home, he and Teresa have the kind of casual, warm moments one might expect from a husband and wife who’ve put in some miles together. The whole movie feels so lived in, I wouldn’t have minded just hanging out in its world for a few more hours.
But more than anything, hustle is about basketball — made by basketball obsessives, about basketball obsessives, for basketball obsessives. And here’s where the wish fulfillment really comes in. The film is loaded with NBA stars and executives playing themselves. Dr. J shows up for an extended cameo, Dirk Nowitzki appears on a phone for about a minute, and we get many, many more: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, Tobias Harris … I mean, it just goes on and on. The cameos are so relentless that someone who is not familiar with basketball might wonder why random people keep showing up for five seconds of screen time and then disappearing. It’s enough to make you forget that Robert Duvall is also in this picture.
NBA stars even get some current roles. Kenny Smith plays big-shot agent Leon Rich, Stanley’s longtime pal and former teammate. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards plays Kermit Wilts, a stuck-up college star who enters into a bitter rivalry with Bo, and makes for a nice heavy, all soft-spoken trash talk and slithery bonhomie. Edwards would be great as the stuck-up, bullying adversary in a more typical Sandler movie. In fact, they could probably just remake this same story with more jokes. hustle actually has a lot of the same elements as a classic Sandler comedy — including a hero with anger-management issues, in Bo’s case — but this time, it’s all played straight. Not all the players here are the accomplished actors as Smith and Edwards (or Hernangómez, who is a natural on film). Some of them are, to be fair, atrocious. But their presence still enhances the movie, not just because it feels like we’re really in the bowels of the NBA, but also because hustle could just as easily be a party Adam Sandler gave so he could meet his heroes. It’s hard not to be charmed by it. He gets to live vicariously through them, and we get to live vicariously through him.