Dan Webster reviews the movie "Hustle"
There are only so many ways to tell a sports story. Typically, even when we’re talking about a biographical portrait – a biopic, if you will – the genre breaks down into three basic parts.
First you have a humble beginning, buoyed by dreams of success. Second comes the struggle both to achieve and then, following some sort of crisis, threats to or even the loss of that success. Then, third, we have the resolution – often a reclamation of those youthful dreams, but almost always a lesson learned about humility and the true nature of what it means to live a happy and fulfilling life.
That, at least, is the formula for what my wife Mary Pat refers to as a “cheesy sports flick.” Let me add here that this is not meant as a criticism. In fact, cheesy sports flicks are one of her favorite movie genres.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone, certainly not to me, that she is a big fan of the new Adam Sandler Netflix film “Hustle.” Yes, that Adam Sandler, the former Saturday Night Live cast member who following his departure from SNL in 1995 became one of the few of the show’s alumni to forge a spectacularly successful movie career.
Not only did Sandler become a star in his own right, from post-adolescent comedies such as “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” to the 2019 Safdie Brothers drama “Uncut Gems,” but by forming his own company – Happy Madison Productions – he’s managed to control his career in a way few movie stars are ever able to accomplish.
Though directed by Jeremiah Zager, from a script co-written by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, Sandler is listed – along with several others including NBA great LeBron James – as one of the film’s producers. Of course, Sandler also stars. He plays Stanley Sugerman, a longtime NBA scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. A one-time college player, and married to a former college athlete (played by Queen Latifah), Stanley harbors dreams of joining the 76ers coaching staff. The problem is, he’s too good of a talent scout – a quality that team owner Rex Merrick (played by Robert Duvall) respects, even if the owner’s son Vince (played by Ben Foster) does not.
The disrespect, if not enmity, between Vince and Stanley comes to a head when – for reasons that I won’t reveal – Vince takes over the team and, against the wishes of his father, sends Stanley back out on the road. Stanley’s new charge: Find a player who will make the 76ers back into a title contender.
And he finds just the guy, a 6-feet-9-inch phenom named Bo Cruz (played by Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hermangomez) who – even in construction boots – plays street ball with talent and flair. Quickly enough, Bo becomes Stanley’s personal project. Even when Vince refuses to consider Bo as a prospect, Stanley brings his find back to Philly, intent on getting him into the invitation-only showcase combine that predates the annual NBA draft.
Of course, problems ensue, Vince at the heart of them. And Stanley is faced with a choice: Give up on Bo, or personally pay for the guy’s upkeep and try to find a way to get him noticed some other way. And you can guess the rest.
“Hustle” is filled with recognizable faces, at least to NBA fans, from former player and now NBA commentator Kenny Smith to Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards – who has a featured role as Bo’s chief antagonist.
The best part of “Hustle” is how Zager manages to orchestrate everything, from the drama and the humor to the basketball sequences, even given plot points that a middle-schooler could anticipate. Part of the film’s charm comes from Hermanogomez, who though no actor has an innate charm the camera loves. Part of it is the calm-but-determined presence of Latifah, whose relationship with Stanley feels natural and unforced. And, too, that marriage mirrors the loving rapport that Stanley has with his teenage daughter (played by Jordan Hull).
Yet the movie overall belongs to Sandler. Not the wise-cracking puerile character he’s known for, or even the intense, sweat-soaked character of “Uncut Gems.” He’s a bit of both, actually, but toned down enough to display just the right amount of heart – cheesy but pure.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.