Adam Sandler is the rare star who isn’t afraid to look vulnerable. It’s an innate talent that’s served him well in emotionally complex roles in Funny People, Punch-Drunk Love, The Wedding Singer, Uncut Gems, and so forth. Between his sharp jokes resides a stunning, often unlikely intimacy that makes Sandler into Hollywood’s biggest puppy dog. It’s why his pairing with an emotionally perceptive director like Jeremiah Zagar makes so much sense. Hustle, Zagar’s inspirational basketball flick for Netflix, is essentially Rocky meets Jerry Maguire.
And Sandler as weary NBA scout Stanley is the film’s rousing compass. Stanley has spent the last eight years traveling from game to game and hotel room to hotel room around the world, searching for a difference-making player who can lead to a championship for his team, the Philadelphia 76ers. But Stanley is tired of the road. He wants to be a coach so he can find some stability and spend time with his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and their daughter (Jordan Hull). When he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a tall Spanish construction worker with game, he thinks he’s found his once-in-a-lifetime lottery ticket.
Hustle is decidedly glitzier and bigger than Zagar’s previous film, the critical indie darling We the Animals. It deploys an all-star ensemble, ingenious camerawork, and sharp editing to uplift a cliché story about earnest fatherhood and distant hoop dreams. But in the early going of Hustle, the bones of other, better movies are visible.
The meek Stanley tries to be a team player by ceding ground to the hostile Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), son of 76ers team owner Rex (Robert Duvall). A tenacious scouting meeting between Stanley and Vince, in which they argue over the prowess of an international prospect who Stanley thinks lacks heart, is ripped from Moneyball. Stanley placates Vince by routinely missing his own daughter’s birthday to be on the road, but they still maintain a heartwarming relationship, seen in a car ride where she explains her dream of attending film school. That sequence finds its inspiration from Sandler’s role as a sensitive dad in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories.
Even Stanley’s discovery of Bo Cruz traces to another movie. After Rex gives Stanley his long-desired promotion to assistant coach of the 76ers, Vince bumps him back to the road, with a lone directive: If the beleaguered scout can find a generational talent, he’ll get his coaching job back. In Spain, Stanley discovers Bo, who not only plays basketball in Timberlands, he hustles the local players out of money by challenging them to one-on-ones. (Why none of these athletes spot the 6’9” Bo as a ringer stretches the imagination.) Bo is a single father who wants a better life for his young daughter, Lucia, and uses basketball as a solution. His fatherly drive recalls Ray Allen’s paternalistic character in He Got Game.
Hustle offers plenty of feel-good avenues, but writers Will Fetters (A Star is Born) and Taylor Materne struggle to develop their characters. When Stanley returns to America with Bo, Vince isn’t interested in the freakishly talented Spaniard. Vince is a clear villain, but the script doesn’t give him much motivation to wreck Stanley’s life. At least Foster’s ability to project an off-the-handle anger makes a meal out of the crumbs that script gives him. Heidi Gardner as Vince’s sister, who might have an unexplained crush on Stanley, scarcely finds any screen time, and neither does Duvall. Queen Latifah is relegated to the supportive-wife role, and Stanley’s relationship with his daughter lacks depth, in spite of their easygoing dynamic.
There’s a version of this movie where Sandler’s washed-up scout veers closer to the struggling alcoholic Ben Affleck plays in the recovery-through-sports movie The Way Back. But Fetters and Materne aren’t interested in the darker, edgier corners that are fundamental to redemption stories. And while the movie partly suffers for it, Hustle is still effectively tender.
Sandler and Hernangomez share impressive chemistry. A connection similar to Jerry Maguire’s Jerry and his client Rod Tidwell emerges between the pair, as Stanley becomes Bo’s hype man — describing him as “If Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby” — and a therapist and father figure for the gifted player. Sandler’s penchant for mixing laughs with heartache rises to the occasion to flesh out his surface-level character. And Hernangomez, a six-year NBA veteran, is captivating. As are the other basketball-world stars making cameos; Trae Young, Tobias Harris, Doc Rivers, Kenny Smith, Julius Erving, and so forth don’t gum up the works à la Space Jam, but add a welcomed realism.
Their inclusion also adds invaluable proficiency to the film’s basketball play. Where series like HBO’s Winning Time sometimes put the sport’s acrobatics in the back seat, it’s front and center in Hustle, with cinematographer Zak Mulligan contributing immersive camerawork and unique compositions. Tom Costain and Brian M. Robinson further enliven the film with enthralling editing, relying on exciting match cuts. To prepare Bo for clashes with top draft pick Kermit Wilts, the other smack-talking villain in Hustle, Stanley deploys a training regimen out of Rocky. The montage of Bo running, jumping, dribbling, and shooting stretches for at least 10 minutes without dragging. A gorgeously intense pacing springs from seeing Bo triumph over his hurdles.
By the final basketball game, when Bo must impress NBA executives enough to earn a contract, we all know where Hustle will take us. But that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to arrive at the familiar destination. Between the sincerity shared by Sandler and Hernangomez and the high-level craft, Hustle provides enough diversions to hoist our hearts high, even if we wind up craving more specificity from these characters and their travails.
Hustle premieres on Netflix on June 8.