When Netflix signed a deal with Adam Sandler to make four films together back in 2014 and then re-signed him for four more in 2020, it was only a matter of time before we saw a Sandler passion project make its way to the streamer. And, even for someone so open about the things he’s passionate about, there may be no project closer to Sandler’s heart than Hustle, the new film coming to Netflix. If there’s anything even a casual fan of Sandler knows about his personal life, it’s his love of basketball. Often seen courtside at NBA games, the comedian has confessed his love of the sport and is never one to pass up a pickup game. So it comes as no surprise to see Sandler bringing a basketball movie to life, especially when it allows Sandler to act out his ultimate fantasy and share the screen with many of his athletic idols.
There’s no fooling anyone into thinking Sandler could pull off playing a professional basketball player, so, in Hustle, directed by Jeremiah Zagar and written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a well-connected and well-traveled scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Stanley’s job is to travel the world, find the best, young, unknown players, and bring them back to star in the NBA. But Stanley is tired of being on the road, as he misses his wife, Teresa, played by Queen Latifah, and their daughter, Alex, played by Jordan Hull.
Stanley dreams of being a coach instead and finally gets the chance when Sixers owner Rex Merrick, played by Robert Duvall, offers him a job as an assistant coach. But, in a plot twist straight out of Gladiator, when Rex dies suddenly, it leaves his bitter and jealous son, Vince, played by Ben Foster, in charge, so Vince sends Stanley back on the road, punishing him for being his father’s favorite. Just when he thinks his career is stuck in a hopeless situation, Stanley stumbles across unknown street ball player Bo Cruz, played by Juancho Hernangómez, playing in a pickup game in Spain and is blown away by his skills. Stanley swears, then and there, to make him a star and, hopefully, get himself back in the game at the same time.
The underdog sports story is well-worn territory, especially in Hollywood, where these against-all-odds stories are eternal crowd-pleasers–from Hoosiers to Rudy to Rocky, we’ve seen it, and we’ve seen it done well. What really works for Hustle is that it never pretends to be one of those classics, and it never tries to be anything more than it is. Its casual authenticity is undoubtedly its best feature. Hernangómez is a real professional, a Spanish-born player who has played in the NBA since 2016 and currently plays for the Utah Jazz. Because Hernangómez is a real athlete, the basketball scenes (of which there are many) are real, which already puts Hustle in a class of its own as a sports movie. The basketball scenes are terrific, as any fan of the game will feel the love for the sport embedded in every frame, and editors Tom Costain and Brian M. Robinson deserve credit for making every basketball sequence exciting and fun to watch.
While it certainly does lend authenticity and high quality to a sports film by having real athletes on screen, the downside is they are not actors. Acting is something that looks very easy until it is done by someone who is not a professional. It’s clear that Hernangómez was chosen for the part because of his movie-star looks, but, sadly, his lack of acting ability ultimately keeps this movie from rising above being a generic sports film. Sandler tries to bring life to Hernangómez by playing off him with gusto, and serving up one-liners, but Hernangómez is just way too laid back, which truly wastes any of the potential chemistry that Sandler tries to manufacture with his overcompensating.
That’s not to say Sandler isn’t good. Having gotten a real shot of confidence with the tremendous critical acclaim he received for his gritty and un-funny role in 2019’s Uncut Gems, it’s clear Sandler no longer feels he has to lean as heavily on the sophomoric schtick that made him a superstar in the ‘90s anymore. He pulls off a performance in Hustle that feels lived in, injecting a humility that works for the character. His best scenes are with Duvall and the tremendously underrated Heidi Gardner, who plays co-team owner, Kat Merrick. These are the scenes where Sandler is really working on his craft and not just standing on the sidelines, observing. Sandler has the least chemistry with Latifah, who is not just miscast but is also burdened with a weakly-written and overly generic character that is disappointing in its continuation of the “wife as wallpaper” trope.
But nothing can hold a candle to the chemistry Sandler has with every former and current NBA player who makes an appearance in this film. From NBA superstar Anthony Edwards, who delivers the best performance in the movie by a non-actor, to the litany of cameos that make the movie a who’s-who of basketball royalty, past and present, Hustle is true catnip for any connoisseur of the sport. And that is where the real energy and passion in Hustle comes from. The story of Stanley’s redemption and Bo’s ascension may be the centerpiece, but that’s not what anyone is here for. LeBron James is a producer on the film, which, along with Sandler’s star power and Netflix’s deep pockets, allowed Hustle to be the be-all, end-all of basketball movies. Hustle doesn’t try to do too much. It tells enough of a story and offers enough of an acting challenge for Sandler to prove critically sound, but, for most of the film, Sandler is wise to just step back and admire his idols as they do their thing—and hopes the audience will do the same.