No matter how many straight up bad comedies Adam Sandler has made with his friends over the years, he has an inherent likability, which is a huge reason why he’s still making movies. Sandler’s likability was weaponized just three years ago in the incredible Uncut Gems, in which he plays a gambling addicted jeweler who is trying to win his big payout from a playoff basketball game. I love that movie, and I think Sandler is great in it. But people can contain multitudes, and when it comes to Sandler in basketball movies, I certainly love Hustle as well.
The main reason Hustle works is because it allows Sandler to be genuinely likable, and you root for him all the way through the movie. He plays Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who’s always traveling, isn’t with his family as often as he’d like to be, and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves within the organization. The team’s owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) believes in Stanley and offers him a coaching position, but after Rex’s unexpected death, his son Vince (Ben Foster) revokes the new job offer, requiring Stanley to continue traveling.
On its surface, Hustle isn’t much different than many other sports movies. It’s the rags-to-riches story of Bo Cruz (played by actual NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) full of hardships, cool basketball montages, and of course, training montages. But despite the Philadelphia setting, this film has more in common with Moneyball than it does with Rocky. By focusing on Stanley’s struggles on top of his relationship with Bo, we get a cool angle on a sports movie that we don’t get to see too often, and Sandler and director Jeremiah Zagar pull it off exceptionally.
There’s a cool parallel between Stanley and Bo’s respective stories. Stanley is a former basketball player, and while things didn’t ultimately pan out for him in terms of playing, he still has a lot to give the game and the people within it. So when he finds Bo in a pickup game of street ball in Spain, you know that he’s not out to treat him like numbers on a paper — he wants to feed into his life both as a person and as a basketball player. Stanley gets to teach Bo the things he wish he’d known at that age, and in turn, Bo enriches Stanley’s life. They have a relationship that’s initially built on respect, but eventually grows into a loving relationship as well, and that transition is a joy to watch thanks to its genuine, earnest, and wholesome nature. Because while Vince certainly represents the cold, detached mindset of so many higher-ups in positions like this, the film doesn’t dwell on cynicism. It chooses to lean into the hard work, dedication, and human center, making for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Both Sandler and Hernangómez are excellent here, and Hernangómez isn’t just good in the he’s-not-a-trained-actor sense. He genuinely delivers a solid performance, that likely isn’t too far from his own experiences. Sandler brings an emotional and caring side of him that I haven’t seen much from him, besides in The Meyerowitz Stories, and it’s a good color on him. He fills the shoes of this character well. Queen Latifah and Jordan Hull deliver solid performances as Stanley’s wife and daughter, respectively, and the same goes for María Botto and Ainhoa Pillet as Bo’s mother and daughter, who he’s attempting to make it pro for. Having the emotional center beyond the basketball, and beyond the X’s and O’s takes the film to the next level.
On top of the emotional, interpersonal level, Hustle is simply kinetic and a pleasure to sit through. The basketball scenes are highly stylized and might take a few scenes to get used to — especially if you’re already a basketball fan — but their stylization really works for the feel that the film is going for. It’s all very intimate and first person, while still being frenetic and high energy. This helps feed into your investment in the story. Each scene builds upon the next, compounding the hype, energy, and excitement that comes with someone’s world being uprooted.
Hustle is a great movie in its own right, but it’s certainly an extra delight for any basketball fan, myself included. There are cameos galore of basketball people, from Julius Erving, to Dirk Nowitzki, to Trae Young to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sighting of Mark Cuban. And that’s barely even scratching the surface of faces you’ll recognize if you follow professional basketball. It doesn’t necessarily raise the objective quality of the movie, but it adds a certain endearing touch to the sports movie fan.
The central message of Hustle is to never hold back. Give it your all. “It” could be anything — basketball, work, life… anything. If you fail, that’s okay, because you can look back and not have regrets. This mentality drives Stanley, and eventually drives Bo. You can tell that everyone involved with this movie gave it their all. They didn’t leave anything on the court or on the set. It’s not a perfect movie, but just knowing that you’re in safe hands watching the film definitely elevates the experience and the emotions. Hustle isn’t one that you’ll want to miss.