September 28, 2022
Netflix's Adam Sandler basketball drama Hustle is a three-point crowd-pleaser

In 2019, Adam Sandler joked (?) to Howard Stern that if the Academy Awards snubbed his genuinely excellent performance in Uncut Gems, then the actor would “come back and [make a movie] that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay.” The Sandman hasn’t followed through yet – his post-Gems “comedy” Hubie Halloween is terrible, but it was filmed long before Oscar voters played stupid – and I can’t say that his latest Netflix project, the basketball drama Hustle, fulfills the promise/threat, either.

Don’t mistake Hustle for a Safdie Brothers-level achievement à la Gems – director Jeremiah Zagar’s new film is a mostly straight-ahead underdog sports story, with a few stylistic flourishes and enough stamps of brand approval from the NBA that it plays like the well-funded fever dream of commissioner Adam Silver (in actuality, it’s produced by Sandler and LeBron James, so we’re not far off). But there is enough to admire here that Hustle is leagues beyond Sandler’s typical streaming output.

Playing a fast-food-addicted scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, Sandler is in peak super-schlub mode, channelling his average-bro frustrations into the faded hopes and dashed dreams of hero Stan Sugarman. Once a top basketball prospect, Stan is currently roaming the world searching for the next big thing, although he longs to stick closer to home to spend time with his family (including Queen Latifah as Sandler’s most charming on-screen love since his Drew Barrymore era) and try his hand at coaching. After stumbling upon a young, driftless construction worker (real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) in Spain who might be a top pro-ball prospect, Stan puts everything on the line for one last shot at the big time.

Basically the cinematic goo that arrives after tossing My Giant, The Air Up There, The Way Back, and Draft Day into a blender, Hustle isn’t fooling anyone with its faux-prestige ambitions. But there is something undeniably charming about the film in spite of itself, its familiar but pleasant narrative momentum and tense on-court action wrapped around a lovably scruffy lead performance from a man who knows how to turn it on when he wants to.

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