‘Hustle’ Review: Adam Sandler scores in heart-pounding basketball drama


'Hustle' Review: Adam Sandler scores in heart-pounding basketball drama

Years before “Uncut Gems” you could see that Adam Sandler was a good actor. He’d already stepped out of the ha-ha zone with 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love — and went all the way back to 1998’s The Wedding Singer, which he managed to knockabout after just two of his big hit antics (“Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore”) he already showed a desire to add a dash of real-world nuance to his comic antics. And let’s not be snobbish: It’s not as if Sandler didn’t do a damn good job of his own in The Waterboy (the greatest of his stupid/clever “classics”). However, his performance in Uncut Gems as a confused, self-destructive gamer-chiseler-gambler working in New York’s Diamond District felt like it was cut from another gem – it belonged in a Scorsese film. For me it was the best performance of 2019 and from that moment on it wasn’t quite right to say that Adam Sandler was a good actor. He had become a great actor.

Hustle, a heartbreaking basketball drama coming to Netflix June 8, marks Sandler’s first major performance since Uncut Gems. Given the extraordinary poignancy and daring of this Safdie brothers film, the new one might sound like a pointed return to more traditional Sandler fare. And in many ways it is; it’s a conventionally uplifting, family-friendly sports flick. But even in a movie like this, the Sandler we see is a transformed actor with more than a hint of his “uncut” flair. “Hustle” is fiction, but it often feels like real-life drama (thanks in part to the extraordinary roster of NBA players and staff who act as themselves), and that suits the new authenticity of Adam Sandler, who it has learned to put all of itself into a role.

Cloaked in a somber dark beard that highlights his gangly grin, he plays Stanley Sugarman, a veteran scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who still loves the game but is literally fed up with his life on the road to save the day World Jet Search for the next breakout hoops star. Stanley is put up in five-star hotels, but they all go together, and no matter what country he’s in, he eats American junk food. He’s a sullen business traveler who dutifully explores the games but otherwise kills time, spending more weeks and months than he would like without his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter.

One night in Spain he wanders to a street court crowded with spectators. Most of them are there to watch Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, of the Utah Jazz), a towering construction worker, playing defense like a racing wall and diving like a hydraulic drill. Within minutes, Stanley knows he’s found a raw Superstar. But can he convince his boss (Ben Foster), the dopey 76ers owner who just took over the team after the death of his own father (Robert Duvall), who was Stanley’s mentor? And can Bo, a raw talent and a natural hothead with no formal basketball training and an assault conviction, find the right stuff — and the cool — to take on veteran NBA players? All of this is perhaps easier said than done.

Hustle is a buddy drama centered around the slowly growing bond between Stanley the mouthman and Bo the brooding, taciturn tire wizard-in-a-foreign-land. At various points it may remind you of sports movies, from the formulaic Jon Hamm heist Million Dollar Arm to Jerry Maguire. The film even alludes to “Rocky” when Stanley trains Bo by making him jog day in and day out on a Philly hillock.

But “Hustle” has its own downright satisfying and at times captivating texture. There’s a lot of basketball, but there’s no big game and not really a team-vs-team game — it’s all workouts and tryouts and the basketball decathlon known as the NBA Draft Combine, which director Jeremiah Zagar shoots with invigorating panache and skill . Hustle doesn’t rewrite the rules, but the film’s wholesome seduction is that you believe what you see — in part due to the presence of players from aging legend Dr. J to Trae Young to Kyle Lowry and several dozen more. But also because Sandler plays Stanley with an inner sadness, a mixture of tiredness and resilience, and a stubborn belief in the game that leaves you moved, fueled and utterly committed.

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