Adam Sandler plays an NBA scout who’s found his 6-foot-9 underdog
In the pecking order of professional sports, is being a scout considered an undesirable gig? I have no idea. General managers probably take all the credit when the team lands a star in the making, and lay all the blame on scouts when a sure thing flames out. These kinds of grievances are true of any number of professions that don’t have anything near the sex appeal of being able to say you work for an NBA team, but the Netflix movie “Hustle,” starring Adam Sandler and his beard, takes it as a given that the job blows.
Look, maybe it does. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to move up the ladder, as Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman so clearly does. A longtime and exhausted scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, he gets bumped to assistant coach for half a second before getting bumped back down when the team’s owner dies (a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him Robert Duvall) and his insufferable son (Ben Foster) takes over and sends Stanley out on the road to find that cliched “missing piece” the team so desperately needs.
If a long sigh were a person, he would be Stanley Sugerman. He’s burned out and his dreams have been dashed. Or as tells his wife (Queen Latifah): “Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares. And eczema.” So he swallows his pride and drags his suitcase through Europe, looking for potential international draft picks. When he arrives in Spain, he spies a 6-foot-9 ringer in Timberlands (Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez) crushing it in a street game and walking away with a fistful of cash.
That’s one kind of hustle the title is referring to.
There’s another — of a man past his prime who perks up when he spots a diamond in the rough. Stanley is convinced this humble construction worker named Bo Cruz is his next great find. His boss says no way, the guy’s a nobody, so Stanley brings the kid back to the States anyway, against the team’s objections — and on his own dime. “Philadelphia, baby, you’re gonna love it,” Stanley says, filling the awkward silence as they drive to Bo’s hotel. “Best sports fans in the world. Actually, the worst, but that’s what makes them the best.”
But wait, there’s another kind of hustle at play — of the drive needed to compete at the NBA level. Bo is quiet and inexperienced and sometimes rattled by trash talk. There’s an assault charge from his past that complicates matters. But he has Stanley in his corner. Poor beaten-down Stanley, who believes in this kid. And friends, you have yourselves a sports drama.
Sandler’s own interest in basketball is well known, and he’s a producer here alongside LeBron James and James’ longtime business partner Maverick Carter. The NBA bona fides extend to the end credits, which are an array of “as himself” appearances (these are barely even cameos, so don’t get your hopes up), and yet the movie, directed by Philly native Jeremiah Zagar, feels like the opposite of an insider’s take on the sport.
Screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters hit the expected signposts. Do You Love The Game? Triumph Over Adversity. Will We Make It To The Big Tryout In Time? A training montage, of course there’s a training montage. I don’t have a problem with tropes because they’re proven elements of a genre that exist for a reason: They are reliably satisfying and they work. And yet the stakes in “Hustle” feel nonexistent. The worst that can happen? Bo goes back to working construction in Spain and Stanley takes that generous sports agent job offered to him early in the film.
Visually, there’s not much to grab your eye, but the bigger issues lie with the writing. There aren’t really any characters; it’s kind of remarkable. It’s a film that doesn’t even rely on archetypes, it simply populates the screen with people, some of whom occasionally say things. Why waste a talent like Queen Latifah on a role that’s little more than half a dozen lines? And whatever charisma Hernangómez may have in real life as a player on the court doesn’t carry over onscreen. As an actor, he struggles to fill in the script’s gaps — not that he should be asked to, anyway. He’s likable company, which goes a long way, but he’s not the sort of talent who can compensate for a halfhearted script. That’s more Sandler’s area, and his performance is refreshingly free of anything extraneous, playing a schleppy guy who allowed himself to get a little too bored with things, before putting it all on the line for a late-in-life attempt at something meaningful.
I appreciate that “Hustle” even exists in a Hollywood landscape that doesn’t presently know what to do with movies that aren’t about life-or-death or saving the world. It’s not quite an airball; you won’t find yourself returning to it again and again, either. But there’s a part of me that’s just happy to see non-blockbuster movies about human-scaled dilemmas still getting made.