Adam Sandler loves basketball. The former “Saturday Night Live” goofball alum is on a roll, reinventing himself as a dramatic actor. He recently surprised the public with his dramatic range, playing a diamond merchant who sold jewelry to NBA stars in “Uncut Gems,” and now in “Hustle,” he’s Stanley Sugerman, a world-weary NBA basketball scout. The movie features what appears to be the longest list of actual world-class athletes electrifyingly playing themselves, ever seen. Sandler’s 100 percent believable, and “Hustle” is a sports movie that sports fans won’t want to miss.
Sports movies have a tried-and-true, “best practices” formula. Whether it’s “Rocky,” “Hoosiers,” “Soul Surfer, “Crooked Arrows,” “Turbo,” “American Underdog,” “Heart of Champions,” or even the documentary “Manny,” there’s really only one way to tell these stories.
Some critics scream “formulaic!” But that’s like saying that when you light a Blockbuster, it goes “bang.” I’m not talking about the movie label, I’m talking about the 1970s illegal quarter-stick-of-dynamite megafirecracker from whence big summer hit movies (and the now defunct video store chain) got their name. No, it does not go “bang.” It causes a minor earthquake, causes dogs to go crazy for 10 heavily wooded suburban blocks in every direction, and blows 15-year-old boys’ fingers clean off on the Fourth of July.
The plot goes: 1) The humble beginnings of underdog nobodies; 2) the first flash of massive talent (or outstanding levels of grit, or both); 3) the first depressing beatdown; 4) the pep talks; 5) the second depressing beatdown; 6) the get-in-shape (or hone-the-skills, or both) montage; and 7) the third-act showdown payoff.
This “formula” is always as delicious as that Gruyère cheeseburger with the red onion, on the crunchy English muffin bun (and you’re free to empty the whole ketchup bottle), that you’ll drive across town for. “Hustle,” releasing on June 8 on Netflix, is very tasty.
What Goes On
Full-bearded Stanley Sugerman (Sandler) is a longtime Philadelphia 76ers talent scout, whose work life largely consists of international jetting about looking for hidden superstars in other countries, staying at five-star hotels, and downing the type of artery-clogging American fast-food franchise fare that usually dominates the diets of bachelors.
However, Stan’s married to former track star Teresa (Queen Latifah), whom he met when he himself was a red-hot, fast-track, college varsity hoopster. Stan’s fate was sealed when a DUI accident shattered his shooting hand.
Luckily, Stan loves his job, even though it separates him for weeks at a time from Teresa and their teenage daughter (Jordan Hull), whose birthday he’s missed repeatedly.
His former boss, the 76ers’ owner (Robert Duvall), promoted Stan to assistant coach. It’s a dream come true. But when the boss shuffles off this mortal coil, the business is inherited by his kid, Vince (Ben Foster), a blowhard whose silver spoon leaves his mouth only for purposes of smirking, and who inherited exactly no basketball-savvy talent from his old man. The new, baby boss ruthlessly kicks Stan back down the promotion ladder while dangling a carrot: If Stan finds a hoops phenom, he’ll get his coaching job back.
On the Prowl in Europe
After a hilarious bit about a very talented Serbian b-ball giant (Dallas Mavericks’ Boban Marjanovic) who looks 38 (but claims he’s the NBA cutoff age of 22), and his 22-ish-looking son (whom he claims is 10), Stan stumbles upon a unicorn in Spain. At a local pick-up game his jaw drops as a 6-foot, 9-inch heavily tattooed kid in beat-up Timberlands swats down 3-pointers, pins would-be dunks thunderously against the backboard, and scores with impunity and flair. Stanley’s in scout heaven; he’s never seen this degree of raw talent.
The kid’s named Bo Cruz, played here by actual Utah Jazz power forward (and Spaniard) Juancho Hernangómez in a surprisingly believable and moving acting debut. Bo, 22, is a construction worker and single dad who flees Stanley’s stalking due to Stanley’s inept use of his translation app. Bo believes he’s being pursued by an adoring older gay man and is convinced only when Stanley manages to get former German NBA legend (and highest-scoring foreign-born player in NBA history) Dirk Nowitzki on FaceTime.
Bo’s never played anything but pick-up games. He can hustle money in street ball, but—actual Hoop Dreams? The NBA? Nah. C’mon. He’d rather keep his construction job. When Bo’s petite mom hears Stanley quote the starting NBA rookie salary, she assures Stan that Bo will call in sick for his construction job and leave for America tomorrow.
Stan eventually tells baby-boss Vince—who turns up his nose at diamond-in-the-rough Bo—to take his scouting job demotion and shove it. Stanley, out of desperation, and also for sheer love of the game, puts Bo up in a hotel and trains him on his own dime.
He needs to give the kid some personal finance lessons on not eating room service constantly and leaving the hotel TV porn channel alone. Is Stanley living lost dreams through Bo? Of course. So what?
The main thing that Bo has to learn is to control his temper. He’s got the physical moves down, but he’s in no way, shape, or form prepared for the next-level, get-in-your-head-like-Hannibal-Lecter evil of American professional sports trash talk. The prime example of this is delivered by Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Anthony Edwards (also an actor), who makes an excellent, grating, grinning, insinuating, blood-pressure-raising b-ball villain.
If Bo can learn to keep his emotions under control, it’s just a matter of getting him on the right court, with the right players, in front of the right people, at the right time. Hopefully …
Do You Need to Know the Game?
“Hustle” doesn’t demand knowledge of basketball’s rules, regulations, history, or the draft system to work as well as it does. If you don’t know hoops, you’ll miss small details like when they bring in Grayson “The Professor” Scott Boucher, the American streetball player, actor, and former professional basketball player, to assist with Bo’s training.
And if you don’t see the movie, go ahead and YouTube the white (as in “White Men Can’t Jump”) 5-foot, 8-inch, slam-dunking, supernormal-power-level deceptive dribbling Boucher, who often goes into maximum security prisons with a camera crew and confounds the hardcore, 24/7 basketball-playing lifer inmates (who adore him) with his wizardry.
Adam Sandler completely owns this modest, self-deprecating, regret-filled role. And if basketball figures as heavily as it appears to in Sandler’s life, and he’s thinking about another basketball-themed movie, it’s hard to imagine how he’d ever top this story.
The only improvements to his newfound cinematic trajectory would be better soundtracks; it’s not elevator music, but sometimes it’s related. And for sports movies, you need some fist-pumping hits. But it’s early days yet for Sandler’s new career.
The movie can be seen at Netflix.com/Hustle
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Starring: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Juancho Hernangómez, Robert Duvall, about 50 NBA players and former players, playing themselves
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: June 8, 2022
Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars