Hustle: A winning basketball drama
James R | On 12, Jun 2022
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Cast: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster
Is there anyone a better fit for an underdog sports tale than Adam Sandler? The comedian actor not only hit some of his best highs in golfing slapsticker Happy Gilmore but has repeatedly defied the odds of his reputation for childish comedies with thoughtful serious performances, each one as unexpected and impressive as the next. And so, years on from Funny People and Punch-Drunk Love, and hot on the heels of Uncut Gems, Sandler turns his hand to basketball – and once again bounces back to deliver a surprisingly winning turn.
He plays Stanley Sugerman, a talent scout for Philadelphia 76ers who was once a promising player in his own right. The dramatic mistake that thwarted his career inevitably comes to the surface during the drama’s two hours, just as inevitably as a young hotshot emerges who offers Stanley a chance for redemption. That young player is Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a kid Stanley finds shooting hoops in the streets of Spain.
Spying his raw talent and potential to become a star, Stanley brings Bo back to the USA, even though his pitch for Bo as the next big thing is batted aside by Vince (an enjoyably arrogant Ben Foster), the heir apparent to the 76ers. What ensues is essentially an hour-long training montage, made up of lots of mini training montages, each one packed with the kind of drive, rhythm and camaraderie that underdog sports tales thrive on.
Co-produced by LeBron James, the roster is stacked with cameos from real-life ball stars, with Hernangómez himself a Spanish NBA player. That means that the script by Taylor Materne (making his feature debut) is less spiky and provocative than Soderbergh’s recent High Flying Bird, a commentary on capitalism, race and power in the modern sports industry. But what Hustle lacks in elbows to the gut it makes up for with plays for your heart.
Director Jeremiah Zagar follows up We the Animals with another naturalistic, low-key affair, reteaming with DoP Zak Mulligan to craft an amiably soft-edged human drama – nicely contrasted with the rapid energy of the on-court action. He anchors the whole thing in his cast, with Hernangómez bringing an largely unspoken intensity to his brooding up-and-comer, while Queen Latifah is a delight as Teresa, Stanley’s supportive but underused wife, who has her own sporting clout. Running through the piece is a theme of dads and daughters, of families drawn to spend more time together.
All this wouldn’t work without Sandler on gently sweet and shabby form, bringing an edgy desperation to Stanley that is a long way from the electric tension of Uncut Gems but nonetheless has you cheering along. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of serious Sandler as an underdog anymore.