Producers: Adam Sandler, Allen Covert, Joe Roth, Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Zack Roth, LeBron James and Maverick Carter Director: Jeremiah Zagar Screenplay: Taylor Materne and Will Fetters Cast: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Juancho Hernangómez, Ben Foster, Kenny Smith, Anthony Edwards, Robert Duvall, Jordan Hull, María Botto, Ainhoa Pillet, Raul Castillo, Jaleel White and Heidi Gardner Distributor: Netflix
NBA fans are bound to enjoy this Netflix basketball flick. For them the stream of league stars past, present and perhaps future will certainly make up for its flimsy, predictable plot, and the numerous montages of court action won’t hurt either. Others may be less taken by the sports-movie formula of “Hustle,” but it’s a likable enough picture of its kind, helped by an ingratiating cast.
That includes Adam Sandler, known himself as a hoops guy. He plays Stanley Sugarman, a long-time scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who’s long yearned to join the team’s coaching staff so he can avoid being away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) so much. He’s beloved by the team’s aging owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) for always telling the truth about prospects, even when it means butting heads with Rex’s preening, ambitious son Vince (Ben Foster). In fact, Rex has decided to name Stanley an assistant coach.
Unfortunately, Rex dies shortly afterward, and Vince decides that Stanley’s too important on the road. On a trip to Spain he encounters Bo Cruz ( Juancho Hernangómez), a construction worker who’s a phenomenon at the game, though he gave up pursuing it as a possible profession when he took on the responsibility of supporting his mother (María Botto) and younger sister (Ainhoa Pillet) as well as his own infant daughter. Stanley persuades him to take a chance on his ability to secure him a spot with the Sixers. Naturally Vince, now the boss, and his obedient minions reject the notion of putting their hopes in such an untested talent.
So Sugarman takes on Bo as his personal project, training him to play against other prospects in trials—like Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards), the hottest of them all—and, when push comes to shove, quitting his job and paying expenses on his own. It’s a matter of putting everything on the line to fulfill a dream, for himself and Bo both, no less than Howard Ratner, the character Sandler played in the Safdies’ “Uncut Gems,” did—though, of course, the mood isn’t quite as fraught and the outcome so potentially dangerous as was the case in that drama.
What follows is almost a caricature of the tropes of underdog sports movies: Stanley makes Cruz jog the streets of Philly as much as Rocky Balboa did. There are also obstacles to be overcome. When it’s revealed that Cruz has an assault charge on his record, it almost sinks his chances, but he becomes even more of a long shot after Wilts uses Bo’s mom and sister, whom Stanley has flown in for moral support, as grist for trash talk during an important trial game, prodding Cruz to take a swipe at him while scouts, coaches and commentators look on aghast.
Only the intervention of Sugarman’s long-time buddy, agent Leon Rich (Kenny Smith) saves the day at the last moment, leading to a running-through-the-airport scene reminiscent of the endings of plenty of rom-coms but here signaling the father-and-son bond (or perhaps bromance) that’s developed between Stanley and Bo and a rematch between Bo and Wilts that turns the tables. In the end both men triumph—Stanley gets his coaching job with the support of Vince’s sister Kat (Heidi Gardner), and Bo makes the NBA, though not on exactly the terms Sugarman had envisioned.
No one will be surprised a bit by how “Hustle” proceeds, or how it turns out. But Sandler gives an enthusiastic but not overbearing performance as Sugarman, toning down his usual manic quality a decibel or two, and Hernangómez proves a natural, both on and off the court. (So does Edwards, whose snarky baiting of him is so convincing you might wonder how naturally it comes to him. One has to credit director Jeremiah Zagar, doing only his second feature (after the affecting “We the Animals,” for coaxing such natural performances across the board.) The rest of the cast does what’s expected, though Duvall looks cadaverous and Foster is just one-note nasty. Latifah is nicely laid-back here, complementing Sandler’s relative restraint. As for the other basketball luminaries, the uninitiated will find them all carefully identified in the closing credits, complete with photographs and archival footage.
“Hustle” was made by Sandler’s own production company, and while hardly a visual feast, production designer Perry Andelin Blake and cinematographer Zak Mulligan do more than competent work. Zagar, Mulligan and editors Tom Costain, Brian M. Robinson and Keiko Deguchi are especially adept in crafting the court action and montages that are so central to the picture, and Dan Deacon contributes an apt score that goes predictably rousing in the rah-rah moments.
“Hustle” doesn’t dethrone “Hoosiers” in the underdog basketball genre, but it’s an agreeable, if predictable sports picture that should be engaging enough to satisfy even non-hoops fanatics.