'Hustle': Adam Sandler Gives a Slam-Dunk Performance in This Uplifting Sports Drama
There are few movie stars who rose to prominence in the 1990s that have been able to maintain their fame over the past few decades the way Adam Sandler has. While he has definitely gone through some peaks and valleys over the years, he is still one of the world's most recognizable actors, and his films still tend to draw a crowd, even if most of his recent output has gone straight to Netflix. When most people think of Sandler, they tend to think of his comedic work, where he tends to embody loud, buffoonish types of characters. His comedies make up the vast majority of his filmography, but every now and then he will take more dramatic roles. Much like the rest of his work, these efforts tend to be hit or miss. While his turns in films such as Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems have garnered him the best reviews of his career, his other dramatic roles in films like Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Men, Women, and Children have been more divisive. I personally think that his work in those films in the latter category is still pretty decent, but I wouldn't put them at the same level as those in the former, necessarily. I am always quite optimistic when Sandler takes on a more serious project, as he tends to do well, even if the film itself is lacking in quality. When it was announced that he had signed on to star in Hustle, a film about a washed-up basketball scout, I was especially intrigued, as the film seemed right up Sandler's alley in terms of his dramatic capabilities. As it turns out, I was right, as Sandler gives yet an excellent performance here, which is only helped by the film itself being quite solid as well.
As someone who has followed Sandler's career for a long time now, it's a little surprising that it has taken him this long to make a movie that is fully centered on basketball. Sandler is an avid fan of the sport, and plays it regularly. Basketball has played a role in several of his films, most prominently in the 2002 animated film Eight Crazy Nights where he plays a former basketball player, and 2019's Uncut Gems where his character's proclivity for betting on NBA games is integral to the entire plot. In addition, 2010's Grown-Ups culminates in a basketball game between the main characters and their rivals in the film. Despite these examples, he hasn't made a movie that I would classify as a "basketball movie" until now. That being said, Hustle feels like a project that has come for him at the right time and the right place, as he gets to make a movie about a sport he is passionate about, and he is at such a great point in his career to sink his teeth into a great role that plays to his strengths as an actor.
This film follows Sandler as Stanley Sugerman, a long-time basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, as he discovers an unknown phenom named Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangomez) while in Spain for his job. He decides to bring him back to the United States to get him in the NBA, but the two quickly face pushback from the team's new owner, and both men must reckon with their own questionable pasts in the process to help achieve their respective goals. In some ways, the plot hits some of the same beats from other sports movies, but there is such a specificity to what the film chooses to focus on that it manages to stand out from them. The film is also imbued with such a genuine love for basketball itself, and manages to portray the sport effectively, while also doing a great job of making the relationships between the characters feel genuine and authentic.
The film is very much a showcase for Sandler, but I do want to take some time to talk about how great the supporting cast is, especially since many of them are actual NBA players themselves. Juancho Hernangomez is quite good as Bo Cruz, and his scenes with Adam Sandler are some of the best of the entire film. They have a great dynamic together, and they complement each other so well. I also quite liked Kenny Smith as Leon, a sports agent and friend to Stanley. Smith has such a great screen presence, and he brings a healthy dose of gravitas to the role. However, the biggest standout from the film's supporting cast has to be Anthony Edwards (not to be confused with the beloved character actor of the same name), who steals the show as Kermit Wilts, a rival to Bo who faces off against him a couple of times in the film. Edwards feels like a natural in front of the camera, and plays up the cockiness of the character in a way that feels honest, but doesn't feel too over the top. He might be the biggest surprise of the whole film, and I would honestly like to see him do more movies. The rest of the cast, namely Queen Latifah as Stanley's wife Teresa and Ben Foster as 76ers co-owner Vince Merrick, are also quite good, although I did feel that they weren't used as well as they could have been.
The film is anchored by Adam Sandler's performance, which is easily among the best he's ever given. With Stanley Sugerman, Sandler plays more of a sad-sack, but he injects his affable personality into the character and makes him so easy to root for. You simply want to see this guy succeed, and so much of that comes from Sandler's natural likability. Part of Sandler's appeal as an actor is that he has a certain everyman charm to him that makes him relatable, and this is very much the case here. Sandler portrays Stanley as a regular guy, despite the fact that he works for an NBA team. He comes across so authentically here, which makes the film's more emotional scenes hit even harder. A specific scene where he is revealing a story from his past is handled incredibly well by him, and feels so genuine. This film also features some great non-verbal acting from him, with one moment during one of the film's training montages really sticking out to me, as well as the growing malaise from him we see in the film's opening sequence. The film does make sure to include at least one scene of him yelling, as you can't make an Adam Sandler movie without one. He is one of cinema's greatest yellers and it would be criminal to not let him yell in a movie. The film does employ the yelling scene at such a perfect time, serving as an illustration of how much it means to him for Bo to make it in the NBA. His performance overall is such a great representation of him as an actor, as it allows him to portray an everyman type of character, while also showcasing his great ability to handle more serious roles and situations when needed. He also gets some comedic moments in the film, but it's not the same type of comedy most associate him with. It's a rather calibrated performance from Sandler, but it feels so natural and works so incredibly in the context of the film. It's easily one of my favorite performances of the year so far, and shows that he is much more than most people give him credit for.
When I saw that this film was going to be directed by We the Animals director Jeremiah Zagar, I was a little unsure. We the Animals is a film that I liked fine, but it was hard for me to see why he was brought on to direct an Adam Sandler-starring movie about basketball. Once I started watching the movie, however, it made more sense. The greatest strength of We the Animals lies in the relationships between the characters, which are portrayed so realistically and effectively. The same can be said about Hustle which depicts the characters and the dynamics between them with such honesty, which gives the film a bit of a boost. The people in this film feel rather realistic, and the way that they interact reflects this. Unlike We the Animals, this film gives Zagar a chance to stretch himself as a director, and to tackle different themes and a different style here. We the Animals is a bit more dream-like and low-key, while Hustle is much more fast-paced and a bit more straightforward, emotionally speaking. On top of that, this is a sports movie, complete with training montages and basketball sequences. Zagar manages to rise to the occasion, however, and his direction gives the film a great balance of high energy and emotional potency. He does a great job with the basketball scenes, and the big training montage nearly halfway through the film is rather affecting. It's a difficult balance to pull off, but he does a great job of maintaining it, which helps the film be more than just a standard sports movie.
Two of the other aspects of the film that greatly impressed me were the cinematography and score, both of which help highlight the film's action tremendously. Zak Mulligan, who previously collaborated with Zagar on We the Animals shoots this film beautifully, and occasionally uses frenetic movements to help show the fast paced nature of the world the character live in to great effect. He also makes the film look beautiful, much like he did in We the Animals, but he doesn't let this film appear overly glossy. One of the biggest highlights in terms of Mulligan's contributions is a oner that takes us across a basketball court while several players are preparing for a game. It's one of the film's most beautiful moments, and really struck me. As for the score, Dan Deacon's music complements the film nicely, and has such a unique sound to it. It is a little distracting in certain moments, but it is quite beautiful and evocative overall, and works far more often than it doesn't.
Sports movies tend to follow a similar story structure, and tend to hit a lot of the same emotional beats, but Hustle rises above a lot of the typical cliches that plague these types of films. That's not to say that it doesn't fall into some of these traps itself, but it mostly avoids them. It's inspirational and uplifting without feeling emotionally manipulative, and takes a couple of unexpected turns along the way that keeps the audience on their toes. The film feels much more human than most sports movies, which helps it stand out a little more, and gives the film some much-needed emotional weight. It feels almost impossible for basketball fans not to like this film, at the very least, but even those who aren't as invested in the sport have plenty to enjoy here. All things considered, this is a film about two men trying to achieve their dreams, which is something everyone can connect to. This is easily one of the better sports movies I've seen in recent memory, and there are so many elements that come together here to make that possible. If nothing else, this film is worth watching for Sandler's performance, which is simply undeniable. Regardless, this is such a feel-good movie, and a big crowdpleaser that will have you cheering by the time the credits start rolling.