When a film advertises itself as the new Adam Sandler joint, it’s hard to know what to expect these days. His track record is so spotty, it’s never clear what kind of story or quality level we’re going to get. This is a man who has won awards for movies as diverse as Blended and Punch Drunk Love, and won Razzies for movies as dire as Pixels and Hubie Halloween. Fortunately, Adam Sandler’s Hustle, currently on Netflix, is a slam dunk.
Written by Will Fetters and directed by Jeremiah Zagar, Hustle is out of the ordinary, and not just because it’s a Sandler movie with no male nudity. It’s also the rare film to cast athletes alongside actors so the workouts feel cinematic while still maintaining a fluid, documentary style. What makes this film so welcome is its mix of reality and fantasy, and placing real people and places around the unlikely subject of a basketball player being discovered.
Every hooper dreams of being seen while working out—preferably by a scout who walks in while they’re draining threes—but it never actually happens. That doesn’t stop Stanley (Sandler) from traveling the world in search of the next NBA superstar. As a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he flies across the globe for an owner (Robert Duvall) who understands him and a successor (Ben Foster) who doesn’t, which becomes even more apparent when said successor takes over the business.
Now his only job is to land the next draft pick, an assignment that takes him to a basketball court in Spain where the game is dominated by a local player (the NBA’s Juancho Hernangomez) who is tall, talented, and tenacious when it comes to caring for his mother (Maria Botto) and very young daughter (Ainhoa Pillett). The two team up for a chance at gold, making the story feel like a hoops version of Rocky. The amount of time they train together, plus the number of athletes producer Lebron James got to sign on, all help the film achieve a similar tone.
It’s a more serious register than the effervescent silliness seen in Sandler’s other Happy Madison-produced films, but Zagar still knows what people want, and he places the star in all manner of ridiculous situations to capitalize on his four-alarm charisma. Yes, we want to see Sandler lose his mind over a missed shot, make jokes about death, and trash talk NBA players. And yes, we also want to see him curse in a South Philly accent—which the filmmakers readily deliver.
The high jinks add a layer of fun to the proceedings that keeps Hustle from ever getting too sappy or maudlin. Typically, movies about basketball are unrelenting tear-jerkers, but Zagar and Sandler trade schlock for a fusion of humor, heart, and flair. Zak Mulligan’s cinematography has a mercurial flow, weaving in and out of bodies like a point guard on a fast break. Editor Tom Costain keeps the pace at an easy clip, and the film is endlessly watchable, thanks to the craft on display. While Sandler doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to amassing talent, his scout work really stands out here. It’s his most complete picture to date.