Matthew Bowden finds that Adam Sandler’s amiable, committed performance slightly elevates Hustle beyond the run-of-the-mill sports drama
Adam Sandler’s cinematic career bears a strong resemblance to the takeaway pizzas you get from IscaEats. Some of them arrive cold, stuck to the box, or with toppings scattered everywhere apart from the pizza, and this represents the bog-standard Adam Sandler comedy; Grownups, Jack & Jill, Blended – the list goes on. But occasionally there’s an alternative; a piping-hot, saliva-inducing gem which tickles the tastebuds of film fans. Paul Thomas Anderson induced this type of Sandler with Punch-Drunk Love, and more recently, he dropped what is widely considered a career-best turn in the Safdies’ whirlwind thriller Uncut Gems – an astonishing performance which was criminally unrecognised by the majority during that years’ awards season.
Hustle pulls somewhere between those two extremes. Conceptually, it seems to be a passion project for Sandler; his production company Happy Maddison is one of the credited contributors, which figures alongside his status as an avid basketball fan. He stars as Stanley Sugarman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who harbours dreams of becoming a coach for the team and making it to the bench. The film, which is not short on montages, opens with one of Stanley reluctantly traversing the globe, surviving off nothing but various types of fast food, desperately seeking to find the next basketball talent. His wish is granted when the 76ers owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) promotes him to assistant coach, consequently allowing him to spend more time with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull).
But tragedy strikes, and the team falls under the control of Rex’s son Vince (a nasty, acerbic performance from Ben Foster which reeks of nepotism), who doesn’t share his father’s bonhomie towards Stanley and promptly sends him back on the road again, slimily goading “You’re gonna miss another one of your daughter’s birthdays”. Yet almost by accident, Stanley discovers a player brimming with raw promise in Spanish construction worker Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA star Juancho Hernangomez) and, under Vince’s nose, smuggles him into the States with the intention of getting him into the NBA draft.
The chemistry between the two, alongside Sandler’s committed, amiable performance, counteracts the film’s cliché-ridden nature
An early point of contention relates to the sincerity of Stanley’s intentions – whether he wants Bo to succeed for purely altruistic reasons or if he wants to catapult himself back into the game as “the guy who finds the guy”. It speaks to the film’s warm-heartedness that it answers this question pretty early on, setting Stanley and Bo on a conjoined path of mutual dependence. The chemistry between the two, alongside Sandler’s committed, amiable performance, counteracts the film’s cliché-ridden nature. But boy there are a lot of them; from the very bloated training montage, the cocky athlete antagonist, the bad guy getting his comeuppance. There’s even a romcom-esque last-minute retrieval from the airport. Jeremiah Zagar’s direction is slick in a highlight-reel type of way, which works for high-octane basketball sequences but struggles outside of this environment.
Fortunately, Sandler’s charisma does most of the legwork, elevating Hustle slightly beyond the run-of-the-mill sports drama. It’s nice to see him back in form again.