PHOTO ABOVE: This image released by Netflix shows Queen Latifah, seated left to right, and Adam Sandler in a scene from “Hustle.” (Scott Yamano/Netflix via AP)
By Jake Coyle
By now you’d think you know what you’re getting with an Adam Sandler sports movie. “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” have conditioned us to expect silly vocals and left hooks from irate game show hosts.
But in “Hustle,” Sandler’s new basketball movie on Netflix, he pulls off a crossover. The film, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, is not the farce one might expect. Rather, it’s one of the most textured and affectionate basketball movies in a long time. Starring Sandler as a road-weary NBA scout and with multiple all-star teams in cameos, “Hustle” has surprisingly good handling and game feel.
A lifelong Knicks fan and pick-up player, it’s probably inevitable that Sandler will eventually find his way to a hoops movie. “Uncut Gems,” one of his most recent starring roles, as a gambling-addicted jeweler with a big bet on a Boston Celtics game, got close to the sport and co-starred with Kevin Garnett. LeBron James-produced ‘Hustle’, which debuts on Friday, isn’t as distinctive or (thankfully) as stressful as Josh and Benny Safdie’s film, but it’s also rich in atmosphere and finds Sandler in fine form. dramatic.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who spends his days traveling the world in search of the next Dirk Nowitzki. Life on the road has gotten him down – his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) are used to his absences – and Stanley dreams of moving up to coaching. Or not dreams, exactly.
“Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams,” he says. “They have nightmares and eczema.”
Stanley’s opportunity finally presents itself when longtime team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) promotes him to assistant coach. But after Merrick’s death, the team is taken over by the owner’s brash son, Vince (Ben Foster), who once argued with Stanley over the potential of a German prospect. Vince puts Stanley back on the road. “You are valuable as a coach,” he told her. “You are indispensable as a scout.”
Back on the road, Stanley is in Spain when he notices a crowd gathering outside a gymnasium on the asphalt. There he sees a construction worker named Bo Cruz (played by NBAer Juancho Hernangómez) whose talent is off the charts, even playing in Timberlands. Stanley, agog Bo’s defensive and shooting prowess, drags Bo to his home to recruit him to the Sixers. After a falling out with Vince, Stanley dedicates himself to getting Bo into the NBA draft. Along the way, Sandler puts his own spin on this type of legendary sports film, the trainer who trains hard. “Hustle” doesn’t deviate hugely from the “Rocky” formula, but it does capture something new about the bond between player and coach. It’s also a smart twist that Bo’s greatest talent is his defense, and his biggest obstacle to success is keeping his cool.
It all plays out in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ script with a keen eye for detail that will delight NBA fans. There’s even a reference to an unfortunate Andrea Bargnani trade that will make Knicks fans laugh (and cringe). The cameos keep coming, including most of the current Sixers roster, Allen Iverson, Boban Marjanović, Luka Dokic, Trae Young and a few more fleshed out characters, like charismatically played rival draft pick Bo Kermit Wilts. by Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards.
With each appearance, the distance between “Hustle” and the actual NBA becomes smaller and smaller. Stanley’s great fear is being left out of the “game”, and “Hustle” is often intoxicatingly close to that. This is a movie where you can see Sandler calling Nowitzki “Schnitzel” on FaceTime and marveling at Julius “Dr. J” Erving (a still hugely powerful presence) showing up on a playground.
Some might say “Hustle” veers close to NBA commercials, but Zagar, a South Philly native who emerged with 2018’s indie “We the Animals,” frames the pros who populate his film as people and players, rather than stars. And Sandler imbues Sugarman with not only a true obsession with basketball, but also the common midlife struggle of finding nothing but ingratitude from an employer after a half-life of tireless service. After a few less intense workouts for Netflix, Sandler is working hard to give “Hustle” the all-court press — even if his wardrobe of singlets and mesh shorts may have come out of his closet.
Sandler’s film would make a solid double-header with another Netflix movie, Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird,” the 2019 scripted drama starring Andre Holland as a hustling sports agent during an NBA lockout . “Hustle” is a kinder movie, less interested in delving into league fundamentals. But for a sport that’s only occasionally been authentically captured by movies, “Hustle” has real flow.
“Hustle,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language. Duration: 117 minutes. Three out of four stars.