There’s a hefty linage of classic basketball films out there in the world. Hoosiers, Blue Chips, White Men Can’t Jump, He Got Game; these films are just a small sample of the myriad of hoop-centric films out there. By now, it’s hard to even fathom a new entry into any genre would be worthy of any sort of praise apart from saying, “eh, it’s not that bad.” Surprisingly though, while it doesn’t re-invent the wheel, the new Adam Sandler starring film Hustle does a lot to set it apart from the rest of the pack.
Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. A former prospect whose career was ended by a car accident, Stanley is the man when it comes to finding raw, real talent. Since his career ended though, he always wanted to be a coach in the NBA. After 9 years of living out on the road almost the whole year round searching for the next great player, Stanley gets his wish when the 76ers owner makes him an assistant coach. The same night tough, the owner passes away–leaving the team in the hands of his petulant son, Vince Merrick (Ben Foster).
While Vince still keeps his father’s promise, it isn’t soon that he is asking Stanley to head back out on the road. Reluctantly, Stanley heads out and soon finds a true gem. An unknown street player in Spain, Bo Cruz (NBA power forward Juancho Hernangómez). What follows is an uphill battle to get Bo into the NBA combine for a chance at the big leagues, with a wall of obstacles lie in wait.
Right from the jump, Hustle does a lot of things right. Beyond just having some genuinely funny and well written jokes at the top of key (you like what I did there basketball fans?) there is a lot of subtle and well devised writing that lets the story unfold without too much heavy handed exposition. Even though you can feel the story beats coming in the grand scheme of an underdog against the world story, Hustle feels natural and real in a way other sports movies do not.
Sure, when it comes time for the social media montages and news worthy sportscasting sections, things feel a little false. It is something that high budget filmmaking has never figured out; how to seemingly integrate the social media space into entertainment without it feeling unnatural and awkward. But the rest of the film feels more like a real depiction of day to day NBA operations, and less like a movie.
Hustle is a film filled with cameos. Aside from a few key characters, everyone in Hustle is played by a current or legacy NBA star. They even had room for spotlighting some famous street ballers as well. Of course, the spotlight is on Juancho Hernangómez here. And while he does a more than serviceable job as rising star Bo Cruz, it’s not what I would call a start turning performance. I’m not trying to talk down about the work he put into the film, but it should be noted that this is not a revolution or the makings of the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I don’t see him leading the box office to record heights.
Adam Sandler on the other hand does a wonderful job of bringing a broken Stanley Sugerman to life. Everyone knows what Sandler is capable of by now, and I must say it is great to see him turn in such a solid performance in a Happy Madison produced film–but this is a better performance than what most people would claim at this point to be in Uncut Gems. This is a more subdued and methodical performance. Just look at at Sandler’s face early in the film when he is shown his assistant coaches office, and you’ll see what real acting is.
Hustle isn’t going to change the world of film making. At times, it gets too lost in itself and tried to hard to be special. The scenes in which Bo is being chided by his new arch nemesis are just too self involved and disorienting. But the rest of the film does so much right that it is hard not just just enjoy Hustle at the end of the day.
Final Grade: B
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Here’s the trailer of the film.