New Adam Sandler movie Hustle wears love for NBA on its sleeve
When sports movies get made, they’re rarely, if ever, all about the sport itself. Like other types of movies, the sport is the conduit toward telling a story that’s personal or political or whatever other type of subject matter you can attach to it. The new Netflix movie Hustle deals with a rarely-glimpsed side of professional sports, scouting, and how that job impacts both the scout and the players they covet.
Adam Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a renowned scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s been with the team for over 30 years, and he’s long hoped that owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) will hire him as a coach. Just as he’s about to get his chance, Rex dies, and his son, Vince (Ben Foster), takes over the team. Viewing Stanley as too valuable as a scout, he puts him out in the field again to try to find the next great star.
Stanley goes to Mallorca, Spain, where he accidentally comes across a street game where Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) is dominating while playing in work boots. Immediately thunderstruck by his raw ability, Stanley moves heaven and earth to try to get Bo seen by the powers-that-be in the NBA, making a lot of personal sacrifices along the way.
Unlike Sandler’s other movies he’s made as part of his blockbuster Netflix deal, Hustle is not a goofy comedy. Instead, it’s a relatively earnest attempt to examine the life of this one particular scout and the superstar-in-the-making he manages to find. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar and written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, the film attempts to navigate the typical sports movie arc without Bo ever taking part in a game that counts.
Instead, Stanley is the put-upon underdog whose talents are belittled by cocky people like Vince, while Bo has to learn to rein in his temper as he goes up against increasingly skilled players. The filmmakers set the scene for the duo’s various ups and downs effectively, with a lot of high-flying when Bo is playing street games and a healthy amount of skepticism when he moves onto indoor courts for tryouts.
A lot of the believability of the story comes from the presence of a ton of real NBA players, coaches, executives, and TV personalities. Hernangomez himself has played in the league since 2016, and among the many cameos are ones by Julius Erving, Mark Cuban, Dirk Nowitzki, Luka Doncic, Tobias Harris, Trae Young, Jordan Clarkson, Doc Rivers, Kyle Lowry, and Seth Curry. Additionally, broadcaster Kenny Smith plays an actual character, Leon Rich, who’s a former teammate of Stanley, and Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves plays Kermit Wilts, a rival prospect to Bo.
It’s probably best for non-NBA fans not to do any digging into Hernangomez’s actual career, or they’ll discover that he has been a journeyman in the NBA, playing for five different teams and only averaging 5.4 points per game in his career. That’s where the movie magic comes into play, making Bo seem like a dominant player even when the real guy has so far shown to be a middling talent, at best. Ray Allen in He Got Game, this is not.
That said, he proves himself to be a decent actor, acquitting himself well in the scenes where his basketball skills aren’t the only thing on which he needs to rely. Sandler, as he showed in 2019’s Uncut Gems, is capable of much more than the foolishness in his comedies. This role finds him somewhere in-between typical Sandler and Oscar-worthy, but it works for the film. Smith is actually the surprise of the film, bringing some heft to what could have been just a vanity part.
Hustle will likely play best to basketball junkies who will revel in seeing all the NBA talent on screen, but it makes for an entertaining experience no matter how much one knows about the sport. It won’t go in the pantheon of sports movies, but it’s far from an embarrassment, either.
Hustle debuts on Netflix on June 8. It is also playing in select theaters.