Hustle Review: Sandler's Slam-Dunk

RATING : 9 / 10
  • Phenomenal, lived-in performance by Sandler
  • A basketball movie for folks who don't care about basketball
  • Impressive, street-infused work from director Jeremiah Zagar
  • It could use a bit more Queen Latifah

Full disclosure: I don't like basketball. But I do like movies, and the best ones are those that transport the viewer to another existence, another life, show them sights they'll never see, interactions they'll never have, and a brief glimpse into someone else's reality. We'll never live in a galaxy far, far away; we'll never be pop culture-spouting hitmen wearing black and white suits; we'll never be an animal participating in a musical number about the circle of life. But thanks to movies, we know precisely what those things feel like.

Adam Sandler's "Hustle" might be the first film he's made in his decades-long career that seeks to harness a vicarious experience rather than a distanced appreciation of Sandler as a comedian/actor. It not only ranks at the very top of his work alongside "Uncut Gems," but might also be the single best film I've ever watched on Netflix. And the fact that it's about a subject I couldn't care less about? That just makes the achievement all the more impressive.

Sandler is Stanley Sugerman, a basketball lifer with decades under his belt spent traveling around the world on behalf of the Philadelphia 76ers, staying in hotel rooms, scarfing down junk food, endlessly studying game film, and missing important family moments. As "Hustle" begins, it looks like all that hard work may finally pay off: The team owner (Robert Duvall, still a commanding presence into his nineties) promotes him to assistant coach as a recognition for his hard work. There's barely time for Stanley to celebrate with his wife (Queen Latifah), however, before things fall apart; now, if he wants to return to the show, he has to go out and find the team a diamond in the rough.

That transformational talent is found in the most unlikely of places. In a powerful sequence, Stanley stumbles upon a street basketball game in Spain, dominated by a tattooed beast in work boots. His name is Bo Cruz (played by real-life basketball player Juancho Hernangomez), and he is the sort of "unicorn" Stanley has spent his entire life trying to find — in his own words if Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby. After chasing Bo's bus on foot, he convinces the impoverished construction worker to come with him to America and pursue an NBA dream. But this is one diamond that needs a lot of polishing.

Soon enough, Stanley has burned a bridge with 76ers ownership (in particular, the heir apparent played convincingly by Ben Foster) and finds himself shopping, training, and paying the not-insignificant mini-bar tab of Bo. This is where the sports clichés come flying at the film faster than defenders around the basket (is that an effective analogy? Work with me here); of course, there are training montages, but great music selections and the creative work of director Jeremiah Zagar make them feel crisp; of course, there's a part at the beginning where the contender gets smacked down, but you really feel that smack and want to see Bo rise up and try again; of course, there's a big, dramatic game at the end, but the film finds ways to make it fresh.

Dollars to donuts

In the middle of it all, this is a basketball film about a singular relationship — one that likely happens all the time across sports, but which we rarely experience as filmgoers. Not since Rocky and Mick has a mentor/mentee relationship been so effectively captured on film; Sugerman dedicates his entire life to this kid, serving as an instructor, psychiatrist, life coach, and friend, teaching him how to shoot hoops, tossing relentless insults at him to thicken his skin, and in one great scene, knowing when it's time to shut up and let Bo figure it out for himself.

Hernangomez, meanwhile, is a not-always gentle giant who builds a real character here. His acting is every bit as impressive as his skills on the court, which are formidable. When he offers up a rare smile, it gives the viewer the sort of hope that keeps Stanley going; when he cries, it will break your heart. This film is clearly based on countless real-life scouts and agents who shepherd sports stars onto the world's biggest stage, then back away with little to no recognition. It's easy to look at athletes and just see statistics; without people like Stanley Sugerman, countless legends would never have made it to the screen in your local sports bar.

Like "Jerry Maguire," "Blue Chips" or "Any Given Sunday," the film gets its bona fides by suffusing every frame with real-life athletes, broadcasters, and other talents from the game, past and present. Some (Dr. J, Doc Rivers, Dirk Nowitzki) play themselves, while others (Kenny Smith, Boban Marjanovic) play fictional characters. Aside from Hernangomez, the best of these is Anthony Edwards as Kermit, an imminent top draft pick and the film's de facto Apollo Creed. After all, this is a Philly story.

The film excels in capturing the flavor of the city, at a time when so many films are content to drop a name and shoot in Vancouver. In an era when so many films want to bring audiences the young, the hip, a viral taste of what's happening on the streets (and then shoot it in front of a green screen), "Hustle" effectively puts you on the sidelines of a pick-up game, surrounded by players trash-talking and taking each others' cash. Rather than the too-often obligatory scene where a teenage kid teaches an older person how to harness the power of YouTube and TikTok when Sugerman's daughter cuts together a video (hashtag #BoaChallenge, one of many nicknames Stanley endearingly attempts to give Bo), you believe that yeah, this kid would be a sensation.

Searching for Sugermen

Do I know who Matisse Thybulle is? Apologies to Mr. Thybulle, but I do not. Do I understand how defensive plays can be drawn up in a game that looks like much of it is made up on the fly depending on where the ball is? Nope. But "Hustle" made me feel the moment when a long take follows Stanley onto the court, hearing the roar of the crowd as he makes his NBA debut; it makes you feel the love Bo has for his daughter; it makes you anguish alongside Sandler and Latifah as she struggles to support his dream. It's the best basketball film this side of "Hoosiers," and if you love the game, I can only assume it would mean even more.

Sandler is a rock star as this beaten-down, at times disgraced shell of a man, desperately working every contact in his phone to keep an ember of a dream ablaze. He is having a lot of fun making this movie, and you can feel it through the screen. His comedic background is a weapon to be wielded in scenes where he cuts through the most brutal of training sessions with some quick-witted trash talk. Sandler has always enjoyed dressing like a "real person" in his films, and that is particularly refreshing here; I'm sure there was a makeup and wardrobe team behind him, but you'd never know it. This feels like real, lived-in life, populated by characters that you could encounter standing around any hoop.

At one point, Stanley gives Bo (or, as he keeps trying to dub him: The Cruz Missile) some advice:

"I love this game. I live this game. And there are 1,000 other guys waiting in the wings obsessed with this game. Obsession is gonna beat talent every time. You've got all the talent in the world. But are you obsessed?"

I'm thankful that, for an hour and 58 minutes, "Hustle" made this unlikely basketball fan obsessed.