There’s a certain type of movie you could swear you’ve seen a million times before, one that hits so many familiar beats you can pretty much predict the next one, and the one after that. Basketball drama Hustle,The movie, starring Adam Sandler in the role of a longtime Scout who risks his life to find a Spanish young basketball player, is just that type of movie. Yet somehow director Jeremiah Zagar and his actors—among them Queen Latifah and pro basketball player Juancho Hernangómez, making his movie debut—manage to inflict a kind of magical amnesia, making you forget you’ve already seen it all just before they show it to you all over again. HustleSmoothly moves from one scene to the next, and then ends with a satisfying whoosh. It sounds like a ball moving through the net after it has circled the hoop for a second or two.
Sandler portrays Stanley Sugerman. His job it is to find talent for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s been at it a long time and he’s tired of the endless travel, which takes him away from his wife, Teresa (Latifah), and teenage daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull), for long stretches. He’s thrilled when his longtime boss Rex (Robert Duvall), the team’s owner, promotes him to assistant coach. But his elation doesn’t last long. Rex dies suddenly, and his egotistical and resentful son, Vince (Ben Foster), takes over the team’s ownership, putting Stanley right back into his old job. Frustrated but with no real recourse, Stanley goes on the road again, looking to fill Vince’s directive to find that one invaluable key player. Stopping to watch a game of street basketball in Mallorca, Spain, he strikes what he’s sure is gold when he spots a lanky, brawny, tattooed kid who’s killing it on the court, light on his feet even in the work boots he wears instead of sneakers.
This wunderkind’s name is Bo Cruz (played by Hernangómez), and he lives with his mother and young daughter (Mariá Botto and Ainhoa Pillet), supporting them by doing construction work. It takes a while for Stanley to persuade Bo to come back to the States for a shot at playing with the 76ers—Bo is certain, at first, that Stanley is a stalker weirdo. Only after Stanley manages to seal the deal does he get bad news from his boss: Vince doesn’t like the look of the kid and wants Stanley to keep searching.
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Stanley, defying all orders, brings Bo to Philly and puts him in his hotel room at his expense. Rest of the story HustlePart aspirational tale, part story of middle-aged success, and part nail-biter. Bo is hiding a dangerous secret, which could endanger his chances of making it to pro basketball. When Kermit Wilts, a Minnesota Timberwolves player, taunts him in a match, Bo makes a terrible impression. Stanley begins to think he’ll never get away from scouting. As he tells Teresa after she tries to offer some words of encouragement, “Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams. They have nightmares—and eczema.”
Latifah was cast opposite Sandler, which was an admirable choice
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HustleSandler loves basketball and has made this his passion project. (He and LeBron James are two of the film’s producers, and it features lots of cameos from pro basketball legends and current players like Julius Erving, Trae Young and Jordan Clarkson.) Zagar is the director of this 2018 come-of-age drama. We the Animals—and a native of South Philly himself—shapes this story with a great deal of vitality and feeling. Some of the camera work is gratuitously jiggly; it’s not clear why we need so many blurry, angled closeups of Stanley’s graying beard. Zagar’s basketball scenes exude cool energy and Zagar pulls off subtle, well-crafted performances, even from rookie actors. Hernangómez, towering mightily over Sandler and just about everyone else, has a loping, Brobdingnagian charm. It’s easy to believe him as a young man who’s both a passionate, ambitious athlete and a perceptive father who’d do anything for his kid.
And while Sandler has given some fine dramatic, as opposed to comic, performances in recent years—most notably as an awkward son living in the shadow of his successful sculptor father in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—As he gets older, he appears to improve. As Stanley, he coasts breezily on a neurotic, self-deprecating cloud—this is a guy who, as the movie opens, is almost too comfortable with his lack of his success. Watching him learn to fight for what he wants is one of the movie’s quiet pleasures.
It’s especially fun to watch Sandler in his scenes with Latifah. It was a brilliant idea to cast these two together as husband/wife. His radiant warmth and energy provide an ideal force field that he can push against and lean into. Latifah is an actor who enhances each project that she stars in. Ideally, she should be in every movie, but we’ll take what we can get. Hustle,It is predictable, but it drives well, largely driven by its generous spirit. It’s a jump shot that pays off.
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