Adam Sandler was once a cautionary tale for what streaming could become. And his early output for Netflix—marked by unwatchable disasters like The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler—correctly foretold the streamer’s future, which would go on to be defined by a McDonald’s-style approach to filmmaking. But in true Sandler fashion, he also maintained an (almost) equally steady stream of critically acclaimed gems. Call it his side-hustle, if you will.
An early adopter of online entertainment—Sandler was among the first major Hollywood stars to make the transition to streaming, having understood that his audience would prefer watching his fart joke-heavy movies at home. The actor has long been associated with bottom-of-the-barrel ‘comedies’ that are often more difficult to sit through than instructional videos on the inner mechanics of conveyor belts. The overwhelming sense was that Sandler’s entire comedic filmography—all three decades of it—was an elaborate practical joke designed to expose the film industry’s hunger for hits, the audience’s appetite for trash, and just how easily both can be exploited.
He would, however, stun people with his dramatic range from time to time in films such as Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and ironically enough, Funny People. His latest in a new wave of serious cinema, following The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems, is the appropriately titled Hustle, a Netflix sports drama in which Sandler proves beyond doubt that not only is he one of the most talented American leading men of the last two decades—comedic or otherwise—but that he’s probably one of the most accomplished flimflammers that the film business has ever seen. All those Happy Madison comedies were surely an ironic ploy, weren’t they?
In Hustle, he stars as Stanley Sugerman, a legendary fictional basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who’s 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 with ambitions of transitioning to a career in coaching, he wants out. His new boss, played by the always reliable Ben Foster in a particularly scenery-chewing performance, has other plans. He sends Stanley out on a last-ditch mission to identify and recruit the game’s next big star, or lose his job.
In a way, Stanley is a lot like the High Lamas who set out on quests across Tibet to locate the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. There is definitely a spiritual side to Stanley’s single-minded devotion to the cause, even if the actual process of finding the next big thing in basketball is dominated by mind-numbing drudgery. His desperate search takes him to Spain, where he spots a lanky street-baller named Bo Cruz, played by real-life NBA athlete Juancho Hernangómez. Bo lives with his mother and young daughter, is a construction worker in the day, and hustles upstarts for easy cash on the basketball courts at night. This is as much Bo’s redemption tale as it is Stanley’s hero’s journey.
Hustle hits all the notes that you’d expect it to, but it’s more unconventional in its approach to sports movie stereotypes than it needed to be. Sure, there are endless training montages and intense face-offs; there’s even an Adonis Creed-like ‘villain’ who plants himself like a human hurdle in Bo’s path with robotic reliability. But director Jeremiah Zagar’s fluid camerawork and strong command over tone—this is, first and foremost, slick entertainment—keeps things moving at a quick pace, carefully laying-up conflict when it is needed, and culminating with the psychological slam dunk that only emotional relief can bring. As solid as the movie is, however, it can’t resist the temptation of some unsteady fish-out-of-water humour at Bo’s expense (although ironically, it’s Bo who burns a hole in Stanley’s pocket with his unchecked spending on room service).
Aside from the two of them, the screenplay by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne paints the supporting characters in broad strokes. You always know who’s a friend and who has it in for Stanley and his protégé. Foster’s only job, for instance, is to scoff at Bo every 10 seconds. And the actor knows exactly the kind of performance required of him, milking it like he’s staring cancellation right in the face.
Speaking of great acting, Sandler is quite exquisite here. Notice his wordless performance in a pivotal early scene, when he learns of a mentor figure’s death. Zagar holds on Sandler’s face as realisation strikes, and then turns to disbelief, and then pure sorrow. It’s a real showcase for his talents, and our semi-annual reminder that this is the kind of creative energy that Sandler should really be expending.
Director – Jeremiah Zagar
Cast – Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Ben Foster, Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall
Rating – 4/5