Jeremiah Zagar’s inspiring movie about a struggling Philadelphia pro basketball scout putting all on an unknown prospect also stars NBA player Juancho Hernández.
Because Adam Sandler rarely ventures too far from his man-child comedy comfort zone, he’s more familiar with the dramatic category, such as Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, which are particularly gratifying. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), directed by Noah Baumbach, is also a rare comedy in which the actor’s schtick is tamed and channeled into deep characterization. Watching Sandler in Hustle as basketball scout Stanley Sugarman, a man whose effervescent zeal for the sport keeps striking a wall of defeat, is both enjoyable and poignant. The film adheres to the traditional standards of inspiring sports movies while providing lots of personality and compelling characters.
At first appearance, this looks like a work made for hire for Jeremiah Zagar, who transitioned from documentary to narrative features with We the Animals, one of Sundance 2018’s explorations. In its portrayal of a traumatic upbringing in the scorching heat of a rural area, the picture was so poetic and impressionistic, evoking similarities to Terrence Malick.
In Hustle, Zagar, and cinematographer Zak Mulligan’s tactile ability to capture bodies in motion yields its own kind of visual poetry, and the director’s warm observation of family dynamics infuses the heart into what is fundamentally a drama about two men looking to counter bad luck and protect their redemption arcs.
Sandler co-produced the picture with LeBron James, together with his fervent love of basketball, has brought loving life to a film replete with appearances from famous NBA players, coaches, and streetball legends. It’s a love letter to the sport, and also to Philadelphia, its music, and its fervent sports enthusiasm were illustrated by evocative images of murals honoring basketball stars across the city. Whether or not you’re a basketball fan, the solid writing by Taylor Materne (an NBA videogame writer) and Will Fetters (Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born adaptation) draws you in on a human level to the underdog narrative.
Stanley finally achieves his desire when his longtime boss, Philadelphia 76ers owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), promotes him from scout to assistant coach, allowing him to spend more time with his daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) and his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah).
However, Rex’s untimely death places his brash son Vince (Ben Foster) in command of the company, pushing his wiser and more level-headed sister Kat (Heidi Gardner) out of the decision-making process. Stanley is now not only without an ally but also working for a tyrant with whom he has had several disagreements. Vince overrules his father’s instructions and sends Stanley back out onto the field, eager to locate the missing piece that would propel the 76ers to the title.
That means more miserable weeks spent in international airports, motels, and fast food, but when he stumbles into a game on a street court in Mallorca, Spain, a bright spark appears on the horizon. It’s ruled by a tattooed colossus named Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), who possesses the inherent skill of a rising star. Bo, a 22-year-old construction worker with the speed, blocking abilities, and shooting accuracy to go all the way in the League, is the rarest of finds in a field where professional scouts are usually aware of every exceptional player in the world.
Sandler’s ability to control his comedic inclinations while still finding inherent humor in schlubby Stanley is seen in his early attempts to reach Bo. This occurs first on a public bus, with the help of erroneous English-to-Spanish translation software, and later at Bo’s house, where he lives with his mother Paola (Mara Botto) and small daughter Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet). Bo is hesitant to leave work and be away from Lucia at first, but when Paola learns of the $900,000 beginning salary, she urges that he go to Philadelphia.
The sports drama screenplay standards demand barriers, which are mostly provided by Vince, who dismisses Stanley’s find owing to his lack of experience.
There’s also a prior legal violation that shows the Spanish discovery is violent, which is proven later when he reacts to boastful player Kermit Wilts’ (Anthony Edwards) teasing during a showcase game. Stanley, however, believes in Bo and is tired of Vince’s arrogance and inflexibility, so he quits his position and pays for the young player’s training himself, which alarms Teresa.
The screenplay doesn’t include Bo running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the early morning exercises pay homage to Rocky and the tried-and-true sports movie tradition of the rough-diamond newbie taking on the pros.
These sequences succeed because Stanley and Bo develop a real relationship and mutual respect, two guys who share a goal for athletic achievement while also doing right by their families. While neither man is modest about his accomplishments, they are both essentially kind individuals with enough humility and knowledge of their foibles to make for an entertaining company during the film’s two hours.
With quick editing from editors Tom Costain, Brian M. Robinson, and Keiko Deguchi to match the clever footwork, Zagar (a South Philly native) and Mulligan capture the action of the sport in all its ferocious thrill.
There’s also a clever use of social media when Stanley uses streetball challenges to rebuild Bo’s name after Vince publicly discredits him, with the amateur film turning him into a YouTube celebrity. These moments are kept buzzing thanks to the usage of Spanish pop and hip-hop, which includes a number of Philly performers, as well as Dan Deacon’s powerful electronic score.
Some of the formulaic pep-talk speeches, a miracle final opportunity timed precisely after a despondent airport parting, are examples of when Hustle veers into cliché. The film, however, has a depth of feeling and a disarming authenticity that keeps you watching. Even the sure victory appears to be underestimated.
In We the Animals, the filmmaker demonstrated his ability to pull rich shading performances from nonprofessional performers, and he gets creditable work here from Hernangómez, who is incredibly appealing and compelling in his debut cinematic appearance. Edwards, a former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate, is likewise believable as Bo’s main enemy, while NBA player-turned-sports pundit Kenny Smith, who plays Leon Rich, a sports agent whose allegiance to Stanley dates back to their college basketball days, is similarly at home in front of the camera.
On the other side, it’s great to be reminded of Duvall’s flinty brilliance, even if it’s only for a handful of minutes, while Foster portrays nepotism’s bullheaded smugness without devolving into Don Jr. caricature. Queen Latifah gives her typical laid-back vibe with a no-nonsense edge to the part of supporting wife, and Hull is charming as the daughter who wants to go to film school. A dinner scene between Stanley and Bo’s families is nice, and Alex’s silent fawning over the handsome Spaniard is a sweet touch.
This is unmistakably Sandler‘s film, and he makes Stanley a good guy, even when he’s shouting into the phone about what he owes the League after 30 years of service. The actor’s passion for basketball elevates the performance, which explains the welcome lack of showboating as he dials down his characteristic comedic tics in favor of character and story rather than a star turn. Hustle is sweet and rewarding because of him.