TL;DR – Sports movie for basketball and Adam Sandler fans only.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Fictional professional sports movies are challenging. The need to achieve a level of authenticity usually requires a mix of actors and actual sports athletes. And while athletes can do the sporting action for the film, the need to generate story and drama doesn’t always mean they can act.
The plethora of professional sports docuseries generate more drama and insight because you know it’s athletes being themselves (no acting classes required). For example, The Last Dance which follows the Chicago Bulls sixth title run, and Formula 1: Drive to Survive that reveals the behind-the-scenes politics in F1 driving, are classic examples of how fascinating the athletes, coaches, managers etc. are in real life. And that there is more to the sport than the sport itself.
For the fast paced game of basketball, this can be especially challenging to create a fictional story that is both genuinely moving and authentically real. Efforts such as Spike Lee’s You Got Game and Samuel Jackson in Coach Carter are at the upper end while Space Jam (both the Michael Jordan and LeBron James versions) dwell at the bottom of the ladder. I mean I love Looney Tunes but NBA superstars teaming up with cartoon characters to play basketball in order to save the planet is a stretch.
So, where does Hustle land? Probably somewhere above the average but not anything at the earth shattering level. Adam Sandler clearly loves the game and plays Stanley Sugarman, a Philadelphia 76ers scout who has missed his daughter’s nine previous birthdays because he is always on the road or flying around the world trying to find the next big talent that will rock the NBA landscape.
After years of sacrificing his family life with wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull), he is finally presented with his dream job as Assistant Coach to the 76ers by Philly owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). However, when Rex suddenly passes away, Rex’s son, Vince (Ben Foster) takes over the reins and orders Stanley back on the road. It’s clear that while Rex treated Stanley like family and knows that Stanley has the basketball IQ to be a great coach, Vince has no such affection and often ends up butting heads with Stan.
Forced to be on the road once more, Stanley ends up in Spain and walks by a local outdoor court where a buzz is occurring. There’s a massive crowd as street basketballers place bets on who will out school and score the other. It is here that Stanley stumbles upon Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) playing while wearing work boots and dominating his opponents on the court.
Stanley has found his unicorn. A diamond in the rough that needs a little polish, but he has no doubt can make an impact in the NBA.
The rest of the story is a by-the-numbers telling of a player with a rocky past (Bo has no father figure, has previously served time for an assault charge and is trying to care for his mother and daughter) that achieves his dreams of playing in the NBA through determination and belief from Stanley (who fills the father figure void that Bo lacks).
Stanley goes out on a limb when he is unable to convince Vince that the 76ers should give Bo a go and ends up quitting to train Cruz and get him in front of other NBA heads to witness his skill and talent.
A number of real life NBA players, coaches and commentators are dispersed throughout the film to drive home the authenticity angle of the story. Dirk Nowitzki, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Kenny Smith, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Doc Rivers, and Brad Stevens to name a few all lend their time, however brief, in the story.
Director Jeremiah Zagar is conscious enough to not dwell on the real athletes too much. Their appearances lend to some decent comic timing with Sandler’s one-liners and wit. But the primary focus is always on Stanley and Bo.
Juancho Hernangómez who plays Bo Cruz is also a Spanish international and real-life NBA player for the Utah Jazz. His ‘acting’ is confined to displaying his ridiculous basketball skills in endless drills and training along with on court action. The dramatic elements he needs to deliver are done with enough competence to be moving. For example, when he is reunited with his daughter as a surprise that Stan sets up by flying her over from Spain is genuinely touching. Likewise, when the inevitable conflict occurs between Stan and Bo due to a break in trust, Hernangómez delivers enough heartfelt anger and frustration to be believable.
But at the end of the day, this is an Adam Sandler film, and he shows he is more than a comedian. The character that is Stanley Sugarman has a number of past scars that allow Sandler to demonstrate his dramatic chops, and he does this in fine fashion. His chemistry with Queen Latifah and Jordan Hull on-screen adds to the emotional pull, and you can’t help but cheer on Stanley’s efforts even though you know it will all work out in the end.
7.5 out of 10