Stream it or skip it?

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Hustle is Adam Sandler’s latest long-running deal with Netflix, finally spitting out something that isn’t a sloppy comedy (see: The ridiculous 6, Sandy Wexler, Murder Mystery, and the relatively well received hubie halloween). He plays a professional basketball scout who puts his career on the line for a Spanish streetball prospect, played by real NBA player Juancho Hernangomez. It has all the makings of a BOATS movie (based on a true story), but it’s not, giving up all the false inspiration hooey for Rocky-esque spicy fiction with a zillion cameos from current and former NBA stars (LeBron James is a credited producer). So here’s Relatively Serious Sandler, another welcome display of his dramatic prowess, and if the movie isn’t exactly as inspired as Uncut Gems, it at least gives him more – a lot more – to do than just lazily deliver half-written jokes. And for that we should be grateful.

HUSTLE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The essential: Hustle hits us early with a travel montage: Stanley Sugerman (Sandler) in airports and hotels and gyms and arenas, exploring basketball players and subsisting on gourmet fast food. He crumbles like he’s been doing this forever, which is pretty much true. He’s a former player with big scars on his hand, which may explain why he no longer plays and works as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He crosses off one miss after another on his list, and the best guy is just a maybe. He powwows with the brass of the Merrick family, including owner Rex (Robert Duvall), son Vince (Ben Foster) and daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner). Stanley clashes with Vince, who wants to draft the player possibly against Stanley’s advice. The old man eventually sides with Stanley; there’s a mutually loving surrogate father-son dynamic here. Rex takes Stanely aside and promotes him to assistant coach and hugs him and Stanley goes home with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) and they celebrate because he finally achieved his dream of get a seat at the end of the bench. And then Rex dies, because that’s how things go for the sad Stanley bag.

THREE MONTHS LATER. The player Vince wanted to draft but Stanley didn’t? He doesn’t work at all. No matter. Vince is an arrogant asshole, and in these situations, arrogant assholes don’t admit their mistakes, and instead demote Stanley to a scout and laugh at how our protagonist is going to miss another one of his daughter’s birthdays because he will back the road all the time. Vince gives Stanley a goal: find the missing piece of the team, and he’ll get the coaching job back. So off the quagmires of Stanley, to another bucket of KFC at another hotel in another foreign country. Everything sucks until he is in Spain and stumbles upon a streetball game and spots a player who electrifies a large crowd of spectators until another guy comes along and chokes him. That other stuffy guy is Bo Cruz (Hernangomez). Stanley follows him home and before you know it, Bo is on the plane to Philadelphia, hoping to make it all the way to the NBA.

That’s a big ask, especially considering the owner is a big ass. Has Bo played in an organized league recently? Does he have a clean criminal record? Does it have all the basics? No, no, no, in that order. But Stanley saw a million basketball players in his day, and Bo is “a unicorn, a mythical creature!” — and unicorns are worth quitting your job and using every ounce of professional capital you’ve acquired over the years to secure a place at the combine. Stanley foots the bill for all of this and is lucky that Teresa is more supportive than skeptical. Now expect practice montages, scrums and missed opportunities, followed by pleading for a second chance. And shall we get into Bo’s assault charge, and what happened to Stanley’s hand? Yes and yes, in that order, because everyone has had their struggles, and no inspirational sports story, even non-BOATS, can exist without them.

HUSTLE NETFLIX MOVIE
Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix

What movies will this remind you of? : Hustle avoids the usual training/sports drama as Stanley Sugerman is a scout who wanna being a coach – brought you to a technical point there. What it most resembles is a mix of sports agent movies Jerry Maguire and Million Dollar Arm.

Performance to watch: It is certainly not Uncut Gems Sandler, or love stuffed with punch Sandler, or even funny people Sandler. It’s more like Spanish Sandler – pretty good for him, but also pretty good not just for him.

Memorable dialogue: “Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams. They have nightmares. And eczema. –Stanley

Sex and skin: None.

Our opinion : Hustle is your typical sports underdog flick that gives us bloated edits, rah-rah speeches, swelling music, and no doubt the plot ball will bounce off the edge several times before dropping for a reasonably satisfying two points. It’s pleasantly worded and entirely dependent on Sandler digging in and finding real heart in Stanley Sugerman. He’s funny, he’s sad, he’s confident, he’s pathetic – but he’s never down, has genuine affection for his young prospect and is still in love with the game. It’s a terrific performance from Sandler, one that isn’t going to change the world, but also one that you can’t see anyone else succeed like that.

Sandler’s chemistry with Hernangomez is endearing, layered and complex, each representing the key to the other’s dream, but never offering easy paths to the basket, so to speak. Latifah is another warm presence, and while her character is underwritten and understated, she and Sandler share a modest dynamic spark as a loving, supportive couple. The cast elevates a film that, with its nonstop cameos (and an end-credits sequence that’s literally a “(fill in the blank) like itself” highlight reel) otherwise often feels like a shameless slab of hooray -for-the-NBA marketing fodder. I’m sure there’s a big overlap in the Venn diagram of Sandler and basketball fans; for them, Hustle is a target.

Our call: SPREAD IT. Hustle is not a timekeeper, nor even a one-time champion. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a winner.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.

Flow Hustle on Netflix


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