Adam Sandler really, really loves basketball, and — in his post-“Meyerowitz Stories” era — he also seems to be interested in making good movies. At the very least, he no longer seems actively opposed to the idea. With “Hustle,” those two passions come together (again) in a grounded, affecting, and immaculately made dramedy that has far more in common with “Jerry Maguire” and “The Way Back” than it does any of the other Happy Madison productions on Netflix.
If it falls a bit short of those other movies by opting for easy lay-ups over more ambitious field goals, “Hustle” still drives to the net hard enough to seem like the second coming of Madison 23 Productions, the short-lived subsidiary that Sandler created for his more serious work (and then euthanized after “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People” both flopped).
It’s also the best film that LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company has spearheaded thus far — even better than “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” if you can believe it — and the rare mid-budget Netflix feature that doesn’t come off like it was slapped together by an algorithm, even if it assumes the programmatic rhythms of basic streaming content as it dribbles through the fourth quarter. “Hustle” may not be the greatest redemption story ever told about second chances, third careers, and the hard work of triumphing over your worst tendencies, but the film holds fast enough to the courage of its convictions to feel like it’s got skin in the game.
That courage traces back to the decision to hire “We the Animals” director Jeremiah Zagar rather than subbing in some generic studio hack off the bench, and it pays off from the very first shot (a cold and shadowy dolly push that screams, with all due respect: “We’re a long way from ‘Hubie Halloween’”). One look at Sandler’s rumpled Stanley Sugerman as he sags through through the bowels of a Serbian basketball arena — the latest stop on the Philadelphia 76ers scout’s never-ending quest to scour the world in search of tall new talent — is all we need to know that he’d rather be somewhere else.
In Stanley’s case, “somewhere else” has always been at home with the wife and teenage daughter he never gets to see (Queen Latifah plays Teresa Sugerman with enough warmth and gravitas to compensate for the character’s “stoic wife” clichés and make you glad that Jennifer Aniston was a healthy scratch for once). But there’s a vague element of masochism to Stanley’s work — he’s clouded by the self-loathing air of someone who believes he deserves to suffer for his sins and eat KFC out of his carry-on even though the 76ers fly him business class. “You’re killing yourself,” a friend says at the sight of Stanley’s latest meal. “That’s the idea,” he deadpans in response (Will Fetters and Taylor Materne’s script is often raw to the bone despite the story’s increasingly formulaic construction).
And just when it seems like Stanley might be absolved of his mysterious past mistakes — just when the beloved owner of the 76ers (Robert Duvall, casting a long shadow with a short cameo) gives our guy the assistant coaching job he’s always wanted and makes all of his hoop dreams come true — everything goes sideways and Stanley is left at the mercy of his old boss’ large adult son (a good and loathsome Ben Foster) who sends him right back out on the road. Stanley’s only ticket home? Unearthing a potential NBA star who nobody else knows about, bringing him back to the States for the draft combine, and flattering the weasely new owner into thinking it was his achievement.
The first task proves hilariously easy, as Stanley happens across a penniless 6’9″ construction worker named Bo Cruz at a streetball game in Spain (he’s played by Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez, who has the face of a fashion model, the wingspan of a small Pterodactyl, and the natural screen presence of someone who’s never acted before, which suits the naiveté of his character just fine). The rest of it… not so much. Cue the “Creed”-worthy training montage, the slow-building sense of shared baggage and mutual trust, and the shit-eating haters who force Stanley and Bo to become a two-man team unto themselves.
As you might imagine by this point, “Hustle” doesn’t serve up anything you haven’t seen before, but it sticks to the game plan with confidence and makes you root for Stanley and Bo — together and separately — every step of the way. Much of that stems from Sandler’s inherent likability, which has seldom been as pronounced as it is here, where it isn’t diluted by angry man-child affectations or any of the other scrims the actor often hides behind.
Stanley is just a decent guy who’s struggling to outrun his demons — “Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams,” he cracks, “they have nightmares and eczema” — and not let other people beat him in the one-on-one game he’s been playing against himself since his own days as a potential basketball star (that Sandler never steps onto the court is a missed opportunity in a movie that only seems to be heading towards its own Yoda whips out a lightsaber at the end of “Attack of the Clones” moment). Sandler delivers enough grade-A disgruntled coach energy and tossed-off zingers to sustain a film that makes up in personality what it lacks in red meat.
Stanley’s painful backstory is unpacked in such bland fashion that “Hustle” almost seems afraid of it, and his family starts to feel reverse-engineered from their plot contrivances as the film around them clumsily transitions its way down the court (I’ve never seen anything even try a “Deus ex Dr. J” before), but Zagar’s steady hand squeezes a lot of juice out of the simplest dynamics.
If the relationship between Stanley and Bo doesn’t go much deeper than the one between Billy Crystal and Gheorghe Mureșan in “My Giant,” well, what ever does? It doesn’t hurt that Hernangómez is easily able to evoke the unique dislocation of an athlete abroad, or that Sandler and James’ combined star power has paved the way for a Hall of Fame-worthy supporting cast of NBA legends past and present — Hernangómez’s former teammate Anthony Edwards brings smack-talking credibility to the role of Bo’s nemesis, even if the movie drops the ball on his arc — or that Philly native Zagar shoots the south side of the city with an even greater sense of hardscrabble romance than “Silver Linings Playbook” brought to Upper Darby and the city’s western suburbs.
It’s only during the endgame that “Hustle” loses its heart, as the film’s most persistent tension — the tug-of-war between its potential as a legitimately elite sports drama and its purpose as a broadly entertaining piece of Netflix content — slackens into a series of predictable beats that head-fake you towards an unexpected ending only to sand off the last few edges the story has left. That extended shrug of a finale is particularly disappointing at the end of a film that’s just a few great plays away from joining the likes of “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Uncut Gems” in the first breath of reasons why Sandler is so much better than the “Do-Over” years might have suggested. If he keeps working this hard, the same man who once symbolized Netflix’s commitment to mediocrity could eventually turn out to be the streamer’s greatest draft pick.
“Hustle” opens in select theaters on Friday, June 3. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, June 8.