Adam Sandler was once a cautionary tale about the dangers of streaming. And his early Netflix output—which included unwatchable flops like The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, and Sandy Wexler—foretold the streaming service’s future, which would be defined by a McDonald’s-style approach to filmmaking. But, in true Sandler fashion, he continued to release (almost) as many critically acclaimed gems. If you want to call it that, you can call it his side hustle.
Sandler was an early adopter of online entertainment, being one of the first major Hollywood stars to switch to streaming after realizing that his audience would prefer to watch his fart joke-heavy films at home.
The actor has a long history of appearing in low-budget ‘comedies,’ which are often more difficult to sit through than instructional videos on conveyor belt mechanics. Sandler’s entire comedic filmography, all three decades of it, seemed to be an elaborate practical joke meant to expose the film industry’s hunger for hits, the audience’s appetite for trash, and how easily both can be exploited.
Basketball is a sport of long arms and longer odds, as “Hustle,” a fantastic crowd-pleaser about the NBA draught, knows. The NBA has fewer than 500 players at any given time, and the players who have ascended to its ranks since its founding in 1946 would not even come close to filling Madison Square Garden if they were all gathered together. In the film, Adam Sandler, a true basketball fan, plays Stanley Sugerman, a weary scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has spent his life sizing up potential rookies based on their height, wingspan, speed, and emotional fortitude.
After stumbling across a lively streetball game in Mallorca, Spain, Stanley gambles his career (and his happy home life with his wife, Queen Latifah) on a raw talent who excels in only two of the four qualities.
He would, however, occasionally dazzle audiences with his dramatic range in films like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and, ironically, Funny People. Following The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems, Sandler’s latest in a new wave of serious cinema, Hustle, is a Netflix sports drama in which he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s not only one of the most talented American leading men of the last two decades—comedic or otherwise—but also one of the most accomplished flimflammers the film industry has ever seen. Wasn’t it an ironic ploy to make all those Happy Madison comedies?
In Hustle, he plays Stanley Sugerman, a legendary fictional Philadelphia 76ers basketball scout who has spent his daughter’s last nine birthdays on the road, living out of five-star hotels and single-handedly keeping the fast-food business alive.
But, having reached the end of his rope and aspiring to a coaching career, he is ready to move on. His new boss, played by Ben Foster in a particularly scenery-chewing performance, has different ideas. He sends Stanley on a last-ditch mission to find and recruit the next big star in the game, or he’ll lose his job.
Stanley resembles the High Lamas who set out on quests across Tibet in search of the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation. Even if the actual process of finding the next big thing in basketball is dominated by mind-numbing drudgery, Stanley’s single-minded devotion to the cause has a spiritual side to it.
His desperate search leads him to Spain, where he meets Bo Cruz, a lanky street-baller played by real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez. Bo, who lives with his mother and young daughter and works as a construction worker during the day and hustles upstarts for quick cash on the basketball courts at night, is a construction worker by day and a hustler by night. This is as much a story about Bo’s redemption as it is about Stanley’s heroism.
Hustle hits all of the right notes, but it takes a more unconventional approach to sports movie stereotypes than it needed to. Sure, there are endless training montages and intense fights; there’s even an Adonis Creed-like ‘villain’ who plants himself like a human stumbling block in Bo’s path with robotic realism. But, first and foremost, director Jeremiah Zagar’s fluid camerawork and strong command of tone—this is slick entertainment.
keeps things moving at a fast pace, subtly laying down conflict when it’s needed, and culminating in the psychological slam dunk that only emotional relief can provide. However, as good as the film is, it can’t resist the temptation of some unsteady fish-out-of-water humor at Bo’s expense (ironically, it’s Bo who burns a hole in Stanley’s pocket with his uncontrolled room service spending).
Aside from them, Will Fetters and Taylor Materne’s screenplay paints the supporting characters in broad strokes.
You can always tell who is a friend and who has a grudge against Stanley and his protege. Foster’s sole responsibility, for example, is to scoff at Bo every ten seconds. And the actor is well aware of the type of performance expected of him, milking it like he’s facing cancellation.
Sandler is quite exceptional in this film when it comes to great acting. Notice his silent performance in a key early scene when he learns of the death of a mentor figure. Zagar grips Sandler’s face as he realizes what he’s done, then shifts from disbelief to disbelief to pure sorrow. It’s a true showcase of his abilities, as well as our semi-annual reminder that this is the kind of creative energy Sandler should be putting forth.