|Director: Jeremiah Zagar
|Screenplay: Taylor Materne and Will Fetters
|Stars: Adam Sandler (Stanley Sugerman), Queen Latifah (Teresa Sugerman), Juancho Hernangomez (Bo Cruz), Ben Foster (Vince Merrick), Kenny Smith (Leon), Anthony Edwards (Kermit Wilts), Robert Duvall (Rex Merrick), Jordan Hull (Alex Sugerman), María Botto (Paola), Ainhoa Pillet (Lucia)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 2022
At this point, we know that Adam Sandler can act. Over the years we have seen him leave behind the infantile humor that first made him a star in the mid-1990s and play enough dramatic roles—in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009), Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), and the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019)—that we shouldn’t be surprised that he turns in such a solid performance in Hustle playing Stanley Sugerman, a former college basketball player-turned-scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. When we are introduced to Stanley, he is where he most often is—on the road—which keeps him away from his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and teenage daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull), whose birthday he has missed for the nine years running. Stanley is a family man who is constantly kept from his family not because of his love of the game, but because of his inability to break out of the role of scout, which sends him all over the world looking for fresh talent to recruit.
That all changes when the 76ers’ octogenarian owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who has always liked Stanley, promotes him to assistant coach. That promotion is short-lived, though, as Rex dies, and his brash, arrogant, and less knowledgeable son, Vince (Ben Foster), takes over and puts Stanley back out on the road. It is at this point, while trying to recruit a prospect in Spain, that Stanley spies Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) playing a late-night game of pick-up on an asphalt court in the middle of Madrid. Tall, lanky, tattooed, and boasting an incredible wingspan that allows him to swat away everyone else’s shots, Bo is all raw talent and drive, and Stanley immediately recognizes a potential winner. He follows Bo home and convinces him to come back to the U.S. with him, even though Vince is uninterested in his new prospect (he doesn’t fully trust Stanley’s judgement, which is why we shouldn’t trust his). Stanley decides to bring Bo in on his own dime and spend six weeks training him to get him ready for the NBA combos, where new talent is given a chance to demonstrate their abilities on the court in front of the scouts and hopefully win a spot in the draft.
Thus, Hustle is fundamentally an underdog story squared, with both Stanley and Bo playing the role of the underdog fighting to prove themselves against all odds; while Stanley is in a middle-of-his-life crisis, Bo is at the beginning of his, which creates a growing father-son dynamic in the which the former tries to steer the latter around the mistakes he has already made. Stanley bets it all on Bo, to the point that he quits working for the 76ers after taking one too many snide jabs from Vince, which means that Bo’s success is essential to his livelihood (remember, Stanley is first and foremost a family man). Bo is also a family man—a single dad to a precocious little girl named Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet), who his mother, Paola (María Botto), is helping to raise—so he and Stanley have a shared understanding of the balance between family and basketball. However, their ability to provide for the former requires their success in the latter, so much of the film is given over to Stanley’s arduous training of Bo, which is not just physical, but also mental. Bo has a bit of an anger-management problem, which other players are all too willing and able to exploit on the court. He also has a criminal past that isn’t as bad as it first appears, just as Stanley has his own past trauma that sidelined his basketball career and cost his college team a shot at the title. In other words, they’re not only both underdogs, but also wounded souls who bond on and off the court while everyone around them doubts.
Written by first-timer Taylor Materne and Will Fetters (A Star is Born) and directed by Philly native Jeremiah Zagar, who started as a documentarian and has only directed one previous feature, 2018’s Sundance hit We the Animals, Hustle doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer, but what it does it does very well. While the word “hustle” in common parlance often refers to criminal schemes and scams, here it refers to old-fashioned work ethic and determination to succeed, which turns the film into a surprisingly effective ode to perseverance. Stanley’s mantra, which we should all take to heart, is that the last shot doesn’t matter; all that matters is the next one, which is what keeps him moving despite the odds. Sandler gives Stanley a real sense of grit and determination without losing his humor, which is essential to his effectiveness as both a character and a motivator for Bo, who is played by real-life NBA star Juancho Hernangomez. Unlike so many athletes-turned-actors, Hernangomez (who stands a towering six-foot-nine) has a natural screen presence and an unaffected air about him (he is surrounded by dozens of real-life NBA players, scouts, and coaches, some of whom play themselves and some of whom play fictional characters). Some of the more subtle moments land a bit heavily, but in general he is convincingly human as a young man plucked out of obscurity and given the shot of a lifetime. That is Uplifting Sports Movie 101, but Hustle manages its emotions and its message with such genuineness and lack of guile that it works, turning it into its its own against-the-odds success story.
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