Jeremiah Zager’s passion project is an ode to Philly and the NBA that makes tremendous use of Sandler and its supporting cast of NBA all-stars.
Adam Sandler doesn’t need to earn any good karma. With a comedy career spanning 25 years and a dramatic career consisting of two decades worth, though more sparingly, of working with auteur filmmakers, the Sandman has been given the green light around Hollywood. And more importantly, he’s been given a blank(ish) check by Netflix, the service most associated with streaming despite its recent struggles.
With Hustle, Sandler doesn’t decide to take his family on vacation to a tropical paradise, but he turns in another serious effort in performance, a merging of his love of basketball with his recent string of awards-worthy roles.
Though Hustle might not be in any awards conversations, it acts as a reminder of the simple jubilation a sports movie can provide. Directed by a more-than-competent Jeremiah Zagar, his second feature after the stellar indie We the Animals, the film follows Stanley Sugarman, a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.
After decades of traveling the world and missing anniversaries, his daughter’s birthdays, and the general stability of a desk job, he gets a shot at a promotion, an opportunity to sit on the bench as an assistant coach. Once the owner of the team dies and his son takes over, Sugerman must find one last prospect, putting his entire career and lifelong dreams on the shoulders of Bo Cruz (NBA journeyman Juancho Hernangómez).
Cruz, a construction worker playing on the streets of Spain in pick-up games, comes with Sugerman to the States to attempt to make it to the NBA. The key to Zagar’s film is Cruz’s nemesis, Kermit Wilts (Timberwolves superstar Anthony Edwards), the supposed second pick of the upcoming draft. Edwards, a formidable villain, and surprisingly adept actor) joins a large cast of NBA players, retirees, analysts, and coaches.
The film gains a sense of reality and a rooted story due to the physicality and skill of its actors. With each of these actors being NBA players, the scrimmages aren’t simulated; they’re a sneak peek of what happens behind closed gym (and executive) doors.
NBA legends have bought into the film, likely due to Lebron James’ and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company production label. Hall of Famers pop up like the tallest flies ever on-screen, lending constant credibility to the drama, NBA fans receive a level of inside nods jokes, likely keeping them waiting for the next cameo. Non-basketball fans easily can follow the classic underdog story of an athlete beating all the odds to live out their dream, as Zagar’s film has no issue observing previous tropes.
An underdog story, as long as it’s done with substantiveness, always delivers on its promises. With Sandler and Hernangómez showing easy chemistry, the third act’s emotional beats caused me to clap in my seat. I’m sure I won’t be the only one.
As a hard-working father and coach, Sandler is deeply believable, due to his long track record of a) being a good father in films; b) playing more public pick-up basketball than any actor in recent memory. He cares about this sport and this story, and he doesn’t need showy scenes to display that thoughtfulness. Sandler ushers Hernangómez into the limelight, as the latter gives a quiet performance in his first lead role, using his physical gifts to guide him as an international hooper with a big dream.
Hustle finds success in oft-used beats, using basketball acumen and its plethora of sports stars to lend status to Zagar’s film. With the independent director shooting a visually engaging version of an old story, this comeback film cannot be denied, using a solid Sandler and a host of known faces to combine for an enjoyable, exciting look at just how damn difficult it is to be a professional athlete.
Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix.