Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar
Written by Patrick Hao
The new basketball drama “Hustle” is an advertisement for the NBA. Produced by Lebron James and Maverick Carter, there are a slew of NBA trademarks, logos and players. If there is anything that can be said about the league, it is that they know how to promote itself. But, beyond that, “Hustle” is an advertisement for Adam Sandler, the movie star.
At this point in his career, there is no reason for anyone to feign surprise that Adam Sandler can act. But, Sandler has never harnessed his movie stardom the way that “Hustle” does. That is not to dismiss his pre-established comic persona, one that has made lots of money over the years. But, here he is as a modern day Walter Matthau – a sad sack everyman, brimming with charm and intensity. The way he simmers like a pot of soup on low heat is electrifying.
There is no better vehicle for a movie star than a sports drama. Here, Sandler, whose love of basketball and playing pick up with strangers has become mythic, plays Stanley Sugerman, an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. That title sounds more luxurious than it actually is when in reality, Stanley is traveling from country to country, missing family engagements, looking for an untapped star. The ultimate goal is to become part of the 76ers coaching staff, not only because he loves basketball but because it would bring stability to spend time with his wife (Queen Latifah in a crazy pairing) and daughter (Jordan Hull). When the team owner of the 76ers, Rex (Robert Duvall in basically an extended cameo), decides to give him the opportunity, that is quickly taken away by Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster), who tells Stanley that he would only have the assistant coaching position if he could find the next great international basketball star.
Stanley might have found that star in Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA player, Juancho Hernangomez) in Spain. Cruz’s talent in basketball is still untapped due to a troubled past, but Stanley promises him a guide to the NBA for him and a better life for his young daughter. When it becomes clear that Vince has no interest in Bo to spite Stanley, the film becomes a classic working class upstart trainer movie. In fact, “Hustle” explicitly cribs from the other famous Philadelphia sports movie, “Rocky.”
It is easy to imagine this movie to be hackneyed. The script, written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne is not breaking any new ground in the genre or in this dynamic between Bo and Standley. But, the film is helped by young director, Jeremiah Zagar, whose previous film was the indie project, “We the Animals.” That film was a lyrical drama focused on character dynamics which he brings to this film. He also films the best basketball action since “Blue Chips,” in large part due to his choice to employ an immersive camera as opposed to presenting it as a television broadcast would. It does not hurt that he has talented professionals playing real basketball as close to full speed, something that “Blue Chips” also employed. It adds to a dynamism that is exciting and fast paced. It is also a testament to the NBA and maybe the reason why the league has become so popular, to have so many young basketball players who translate to the screen so well including Minnesota Timberwolves player Anthony Edwards as Bo Cruz’s trash-talking rival, Kermit Wilts.
The film also benefits from the great dynamic between Sandler and Hernangomez. Sandler has much needed dramatic heft whose inherent likability is a natural to root for. Hernangomez also holds his own with a charming puppy dog quality. He gives a natural performance that would not be surprising if you believed that this was a 6’9’’ actor that the film was lucky to find. Together they are like Mickey and Rocky, even with the myriad of montages, this time instead of the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Bo has to climb the Dupont and Silverwood stairs.
The film keeps its focus on the two, with the relationships and family aspects of Stanley’s life given unfortunate short shrift (and honestly who does not want to learn more about the marriage between Queen Latifah and Adam Sandler). But, the film has no ambitions beyond the story it’s telling. Thankfully, “Hustle” is really good at it.
“Hustle” is in limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix.