Director(s): Jeremiah Zagar
Writer(s): Will Fetters, Taylor Materne
Cast: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangomez, Queen Latifah
Adam Sandler has not shied away from being a sports fan. His career took off with what is heralded now as sports comedy classics in Happy Gilmore (Golf) and Waterboy (Football) and he didn’t stop there. Longest Yard, Grown Ups, and even his recent Uncut Gems all have a sports aspect to them that show his love for athletics as a whole. However, even if he clearly is a fan of all sports, Sandler loves basketball. Viral videos galore of Sandler playing streetball with fans, and playing well, show that he not only loves the sport but he’s also dammed good at it too.
Starring in Hustle, Sandler takes his love of the game all the way to the big leagues. Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, an NBA scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who is tasked with the challenge of finding the next Michael Jordan. Most of his time he spends away from the team and his family, and most of his time he spends witnessing players that frankly won’t pan out in the end. After a short stint off the road, a tragedy happens, and he is put right back on the road for one player that can make or break his career. This player isn’t found in overseas professional leagues but on a streetball court. When Sugerman first watches Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) he sees the same thing in Cruz that he sees in himself, and looks to give him his shot at the NBA.
Hustle truly should not have worked as well as it did. The script isn’t just by the numbers, it feels as though co-writer Taylor Materne took an unused NBA 2K MyPlayer video game script and reutilized it for a live-action film. The entire premise is sort of everywhere, and the way the movie plays out is entirely unbelievable, forcing your suspension of belief to be stretched to an uber thin margin.
However, the thing with Hustle is that it does still work, and the reason it does is that it leans heavily on the backs of Sandler and real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangomez. The chemistry these two share is electric, and scenes that could have been lifeless were given a major heartbeat. Sandler was perfect in this role, and his genuine love for the sport of basketball bleeds through every scene. Even if Sandler has never and will never play a minute in the NBA – I’m sorry Adam it’s true, neither will I – he has the drive and the passion that any of the professionals have; this can be shown in just how hard Sugerman trains Cruz.
Watching these two push each other is exactly the reason this kind of cliche sports drama still works. Even if the situation isn’t believable, the people are, and casting a slew of actual NBA players could have been the biggest mistake the film made. Instead, it brought some believability to the film that really feels set in the big leagues of the NBA. One of the reasons the real NBA players worked well in this film is because, for the most part, they didn’t have to act.
Director Jeremiah Zagar keeps the pacing up and the excitement on the court. The way the basketball scenes are shot captures the fast-paced nature of the sport, and he doesn’t just stop mid-game, the training montages also capture the nostalgia of past sports montages in an effective way. Even Anthony Edwards, playing one of the most generic sports villains of the past decade, becomes a fun addition to the film. I don’t think any of the NBA or NBA adjacent supporting cast should quit their day jobs and become actors – maybe Hernangomez has a shot, but that’s it – but for this film, they all come together and create something that is exciting to watch.
Hustle might not be the best sports movie ever made, but it is a wonderful addition to the Sandler Sports Universe of movies. Sandler’s more dramatic tone continues the trajectory of his career that is seeing him go in more exciting and engaging directions. Juancho Hernangomez delivers a genuinely good performance, and one I wasn’t expecting for the current NBA player. It’s cheesy, electric, and made with a lot of heart.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.