The line ‘Everyone loves a redemption story’ sums up nicely the knowing tone of Jeremiah Zagar’s vehicle for the increasing acting prowess of Adam Sandler. Following on from his breakout in Uncut Gems, Sandler is finding his feet as a serious performer just when Netflix would probably prefer him to bring the funny that audiences still seem to crave. But Netflix has no cause to complain, since Hustle is funnier than many of Sandler’s comedies, and I say that as a fan of le cinema de Adam Sandler going back to Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore.
The world of NBA basketball seems, to outsiders, like an enclosed aristocratic preserve; a throwaway line estimates the annual earnings of a player as an astronomical amount. So there’s room on the fringes for characters like Stanley Sugerman (Sandler) who has a benighted past as a player but scrapes a healthy living as a scout on the road when he’d rather be with his family on his home turf of Philadelphia. Opportunity knocks in Spain, where Sugerman discovers unique talent Bo Cruz, played in a winning turn by Juancho Hernangómez. Sugerman abruptly parts company with his own team, and has to go Jerry Macguire with his client, coaching his charge to success in the States, and with both men trying to take a place amongst the sporting elite by virtue of talent and hard graft.
Lots goes right here; Sander obviously relishes cashing in his fan potential by coaxing cameos from star athletes, and play feels authentic. By breaking each game up into individual player conflicts, no one cares about the outcomes of these games, and the final match isn’t even shown, breaking sports movie conventions. This is a film about the players, more than the game, and Hustle has a top notch cast to burn. Robert Duvall hits the right note in early scenes as the team owner, with Ben Foster getting his weasel-based thing on as his mendacious son. Queen Latifah makes Sugerman’s domestic life a heartbeat, and I found it easy to relate to his daughter (Heidi Gardner) who is more enthusiastic about film-school and watching Evil Dead than what her father does for a living.
The opening scene, establishes Sugerman’s eye for a player as he surveys a ‘Big Serbian’ (Boban Marjanović), is a grabber and aside from the traditional PEP injections of training montages and motivational insight (‘It’s YOU VS YOU!’) Hustle pretty much observes the clichés yet pumps fresh energy into tired legs. There’s contrivances and Philly cheese, sure, but it’s all part of the package here. Hustle is a sports movie that spends most of the time off the court, managing to take the pulse of today’s sports, played by millionaires, yet still dependant on them as athletes working together like ordinary Joes. It’s what NBA insiders might call a home run for Adam Sandler.