Hustle Movie Review: Adam Sandler stands tall in a heartwarming tale of second chances
Hustle is actually an interesting case study on how even the most cardboard of villains, the most cliched of scenes, and the most predictable of tropes, manage to keep us excited, engaged and invested
A game of basketball is hanging in balance. The protagonist has the ball in his hands. He is a picture of focussed determination with a single drop of sweat glistening on his eyebrow. The defence is closing in. The camera pans to his feet to show that he is just outside the 3-point circle. We see the electronic scorecard where the points are displayed in bright red, and we note that the protagonist's team needs three points to win that coveted championship that has been eluding the team for years together. There are spectators who are holding in their breaths afraid to exhale and disturb the euphoric equilibrium in the stadium. The ball is dribbled twice, and he takes his shooting stance. We now see random faces in the audience to show how deep is their investment. Then, we are shown the rim of the basket, and then the wrist of the protagonist, and either aided by silence or a rousing soundtrack, the protagonist shoots the ball... and... well, almost every second sports drama, especially a film based on basketball will mostly have iterations of the scene. However, despite being a largely safe and predictable sports drama, avoiding stereotypes and having an enterprising Adam Sandler at the centre of things is what makes Netflix's latest release, Hustle, a lovely heartwarming sports film.
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Cast: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangomez, Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall
Streaming on: Netflix
Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and is on the quest to get that one missing piece to the puzzle that would make the Sixers win the championship. It takes him across the lengths and breadths of the world. This quest comes at a cost of missing out on his daughter's birthday for nine consecutive years. The former player wants to become the coach, but the management thinks his time is better spent scouting. After being on one exhausting trip too many, Stanley comes across the 22-year-old Bo Cruz (Utah Jazz's Juancho Hernangómez) in Spain, and then begins the hustle to get the latter drafted into a team.
Hustle is actually an interesting case study on how even the most cardboard of villains, the most cliched of scenes, and the most predictable of tropes, manage to keep us excited, engaged and invested. The first time we see the new boss of 76ers, we know Stanley will face obstacles in getting people to like his 'find'. The first time we see Bo leaving his family to come to the USA, we know they would be back in the last act to give him the proverbial push. However, the bite-sized twists to these templates are just about enough for a film like Hustle. Take, for instance, the scene where Bo's family comes to cheer him up at the stands. One might expect him to showcase his best at the game. But what happens there suddenly feels more real, and hence, emotional. These mini subversions, written by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, hit the target with amazing consistency. Their writing also works in the scenes we have come to expect out of sports dramas. For example, the training montage sequence between Bo and Stanley. We know its origins. The makers know its origins. The actors know its origins. We have seen Rocky. And yet, that scene works like clockwork. As they say, cliches exist for a reason... they work.
Even when Hustle follows the same beats as countless Hollywood sports dramas, it is Adam Sandler who stands tall to inject freshness into the proceedings. His droll voice and never-ending jibber-jabber come in handy for the hustler that he plays in the film. When he is riling up Bo, putting on his game face against 76ers new boss Vincent, or pleading with his former teammates and now agents, Adam Sandler's Stanley Sugerman is a calming presence and the actor adds one more feather to his reinvention cap. Although the role is diametrically opposite to what we saw in Uncut Gems, it is fascinating to see how Adam Sandler is reinventing himself for a new generation of audience. Fans of Happy Madison films will also be happy to see the new avatar of Adam Sandler where he steps into roles one might not ascribe to him. We have seen films like The Longest Yard, where he coached a team of prisoners in football. However, in Hustle, we see his trademark brashness and never-ending shenanigans turn into mellowed sarcasm and subtle knockout punches.
While Jeremiah Zagar's directorial works on most counts, there are a few missteps here and there, especially with an actor like Queen Latifah not getting a meaty enough role. However, both Latifah and Robert Duvall lend gravitas to characters that greatly impacts Stanley Sugerman's life. We see a bunch of real-life NBA players waltz in and out of the screen, and it is fun to see them in a setup like this. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan wonderfully encapsulates the hustle and bustle of the basketball courts, and delivers smart flourishes to ensure that even in the NBA-level of games, the audience doesn't forget that Bo came here from playing street basketball.
At one point in the film, Robert Duvall's Rex Merrick looks Stanley in his eye, and says, "Never back down." And it is almost like this was something someone special once told Adam Sandler too. With Uncut Gems, and now Hustle, Adam Sandler seems to be determined to show the world that there are two things that he'd always do with his career — Never forget to have fun... and Never back down.