Still of Adam Sandler and Juancho Hernangomez in Hustle

Film Review: Hustle

Film Reviews

Director: Jeremiah Zagar

Happy Madison Productions
In Theaters: 06.03
Streaming on Netflix: 06.08

The partnership between Netflix and Adam Sandler has been responsible for a more substantial output of crap than Metamucil, though it’s undeniably scored high viewership. With the basketball dramedy Hustle, the team has finally made a slam dunk in terms of quality moviemaking.

Hustle is the story of Stanley Sugerman (Sandler), a Philadelphia 76ers scout who has spent so much time on the road that he has missed his daughter’s birthday for nine years in a row. Stanley’s dreams of earning a place as an assistant coach almost come to fruition, but when the team’s venerable owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), dies suddenly, leaving his son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge, Vince sends Stanley back out on the road chasing white whales. This search leads Stanley to Spain, where he discovers Bo Cruz, played by real-life NBA star Juancho Hernangómez. Bo is a phenomenal streetball player whose skill on the court is matched only by a troubled history in life. Stanley sees a star, however, and he brings Bo to America for a chance at superstardom and the possibility of a better life for both men. If they can get Bo’s temper in check and focus his will to win, they just might be able to prove something to the NBA—and to themselves.

Director Jeremiah Zagar (We The Animals) brings a lot of game to Hustle, employing a raw, intricate ciinéma vérité sensibility that recalls Paul Greengrass. The sequences on the court are fast paced and exhilarating, though the heart and soul of the movie lies in the character relationships and in Sandler’s formidable performance. As we’ve seen most recently in Uncut Gems, the former Saturday Night Live is quite an actor,  with a commanding presence that goes beyond the lazy, lowbrow shenanigans.

Hernangómez doesn’t exactly prove that he should be doing Shakespeare in the Park, but he’s a strong presence who plays his role with cool, self assurance. Queen Latifah provides an impressive number of assists as Stanley’s supportive but assertive wife, Teresa, and her romantic chemistry with Sandler is so natural that I’d like to see them paired in other films. Three personal favorites, Duvall, Foster and current SNL all-star Heidi Gardner don’t get nearly enough play time, but when they do, they are solid team players. 

The screenplay written by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters isn’t anything particularly new, and it’s about as predictable as you’d expect for this sort of movie. For the most part, though, it’s funny and charming with good dialogue and plenty of heart. Hustle is a formula sports movie with a feel-good center, and it doesn’t try to convince you that it’s anything more or less than a really good one. It’s enjoyable and involving because it captures the excitement of the game, and more importantly, it gives us winning characters for whom we can root throughout. Hustle doesn’t require you to be a sports person to get swept up in it, though a certain affinity for hoops definitely doesn’t hurt. My one big complaint is that Hustle chokes when it comes to Stanley and and Bo’s relationships with their daughters, Alex (Jordan Hull) and Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet), respectively. If the movie had taken a shot at exploring these relationships—or even at exploring some more meaningful common ground between these two men than in being better at sports than at fatherhood—Hustle would have had a chance to be a deeper and more dramatic story.

All in all, Hustle is an entertaining and skillfully played summer movie that stacks up favorably against its blockbuster competition, though I’ll be surprised if gains much traction in terms of awards viability. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t have to rely on expensive CGI or explosions but aren’t quite in the mood for more challenging arthouse fare, Hustle scores more than enough points to make it a winning choice, whether you’re seeing it on the big screen or streaming it at home. –Patrick Gibbs

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