September 29, 2022
Hustle Is Pure Adam Sandler Wish Fulfillment

There’s always been a wish-fulfillment quality to Adam Sandler’s films, particularly his comedies. Sometimes, the wish in question is simply a desire to get away with his pals to some fun new location to shoot a picture. Occasionally, it involves one of his characters accomplishing a classic Guy Goal: being a great football player, or a stud secret agent, or an irresistible ladies’ man. Yes, this might describe the types of characters most movie stars play, but there’s something to Sandler’s never-try-too-hard persona and acting style that lends these films the aura of average-guy fantasy. Whether he’s playing a superstar quarterback in The Longest Yard or a plastic surgeon who strings beautiful women along in Just Go With It, he still basically looks and acts like Adam Sandler. He counters authenticity with honesty.

In Jeremiah Zagar’s Netflix sports drama Hustle, however, the authenticity and the honesty finally come together. Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who travels the world scoping out hot-prospect basketball players and diamonds in the rough, evaluating them to see if they might have a future in the NBA. One night in Spain, he chances upon Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA forward Juancho Hernangómez), an enormously talented 22-year-old construction worker and single dad who regularly destroys everybody on the city’s outdoor public courts, blocking and dunking on them with abandon.

Just like that, Stanley realizes he might have discovered the Next Big Thing, and the film details his painstaking efforts to get Bo noticed by NBA teams. There are obstacles at every turn, to be sure, but they’re mild, standard-issue ones. Much of the film focuses on Bo working out, or Bo playing in games. (Those looking to work on their ball-control skills will find some nifty exercises among the many, many montages.) If you read the script on the page, you might send it back for a rewrite and ask for “more of everything” before it could become a proper movie with proper story beats.

And yet, Hustle works, and it works beautifully, thanks to Sandler’s commitment. Stanley Sugerman seems close to the actor’s heart; one suspects that someone like Sandler would drop everything to become a scout or an assistant coach for an NBA team (even if it was for the 76ers, rivals to his beloved Knicks). As a result, the actor, who often delights in giving self-aware, hyperstylized turns, delivers an unadorned, shtick-free, surprisingly sincere performance. Stanley feels like a real person. Here’s a guy who is always tense, whether he’s fretting over something that’s gone wrong with Bo’s development or expressing joy over something that’s gone right. He expresses that tension in a highly relatable way, however. This is not the ostentatious angst of a movie protagonist but the ordinary anxiety of the common man. He could be you at your job.

» continue to Vulture