For years, Adam Sandler has built basketball hoops on set for his cast and crew to play.
Now, it’s his turn to play the role of NBA scout in the Netflix basketball flick “Hustle,” which provides an original streaming alternative to those box-office franchise dinosaurs.
The film follows Stanley Sugerman (Sandler), who travels the globe to find players for the Philadelphia 76ers with dreams of becoming a coach. The aging team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) believes in his potential, as does the owner’s daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner), but the owner’s cocky son Vin (Ben Foster) thinks he knows better.
Thus, Stanley is forced to take one last scouting trip to Spain, where he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a 6-foot-9 shot-blocking freak with surprising ball-handling skills, impressive passing vision and deadly three-point accuracy. They quickly form a bond en route to the NBA Combine, but will both of their troubled pasts come back to haunt them?
The role is one of Sandler’s better dramatic performances, albeit with enough humor to please his fanbase, finding a satisfying middle ground between the arthouse award contenders of “Uncut Gems” (2019) and the zany slapstick comedies “Billy Madison” (1995) and “Happy Gilmore” (1996) that birthed his company Happy Madison Productions.
From the very first scene, we see the twinkle in Sandler’s eye as he emerges from the arena tunnel to watch a basketball game. Stanley eats, sleeps and breathes the sport with ambitions to pass on his knowledge. We feel the frustration as his earned acumen clashes with nepotism, desperately putting up his own money to believe in his own eye for talent.
Of course, none of it would work without the right choice to play the diamond-in-the-rough global hoopster. Hernangómez currently plays for the Utah Jazz but originally hails from Madrid, authentically swatting shots in blacktop pickup games. As he clenches his fists and holds his stare, we feel his temper boiling over and actively root for him to keep his cool.
This character flaw invites zingers as Stanley tries to get under his skin, forcing Bo to run the bleachers each time he misses a shot during “your mama” jokes. This isn’t just a way to slip in sophomoric quips; it’s a character development tool by Oscar-nominated “A Star is Born” scribe Will Fetters, who co-writes with NBA2K video game alum Taylor Materne.
Sure, we’ve seen this setup before: Albert Brooks memorably traveled to Mexico to sign pitching prospect Brendan Fraser to the New York Yankees in “The Scout” (1994). We recognize the formula; hell, you might even guess a few of the plot points while you’re watching. But it’s still ultimately satisfying because we actually care for the characters.
The script crafts a touching bond between player and scout, as Bo explains how tattoos on one arm are dedicated to his mother (Maria Botto) and daughter Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet), while his other arm remains empty for his absent father. When Bo later adds a Stanley quote on his once-empty arm, it’s clear that the father-figure relationship is complete.
We also see the family support of Stanley, whose wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) are the beating heart of his life. Their domestic scenes are too short in the first half, paying lip service to the B-story before rushing back on the court. Thankfully, as the film progresses, these scenes are elaborated to become the real strength of the movie.
In fact, Stanley’s daughter is a film school applicant shooting courtside footage on a DSLR, giving director Jeremiah Zagar (“We the Animals”) an excuse for mixed-media montages, quick-cutting Bo’s rigorous training as the camera moves through rolling tires and tracks backward up steep inclines as Stanley drives his car behind Bo like Mick training Rocky.
Training montages on the early-morning streets of Philadelphia will always conjure memories of the G.O.A.T. of sports flicks, “Rocky” (1976). Thankfully, Zagar doesn’t play the “Rocky” theme or show the iconic steps of the art museum, but he does pay homage by having Stanley and Bo quote Balboa as he runs a different downtown Philly staircase.
Just like “Rocky” made underdog magic out of a losing effort, “Hustle” doesn’t build to a big championship game like so many cliched sports flicks. Rather, its climax is simply the NBA Combine. We won’t spoil whether Bo gets drafted or not, but let’s just say that Zagar deftly cuts to black at just the right moment when both of the character arcs are complete.
This is where ’70s filmmaking masters would have left it — the most poetic moment, letting audiences chew on the closing titles — but folks in the 2020s crave falling action during flashy end credits. At least we get hoops highlights of the various NBA figures who made cameos: Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Mark Jackson.
Special shoutout to Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves for his role as the trash-talking rival prospect Kermit. Turns out, it’s not easy being green, as a Muppet or as a rookie hoopster, but the guts and determination to make life-changing money is palpable.
The end result is one of the best blends of comedy and drama that Sandler’s ever done. I’m admittedly a mark for “Happy Gilmore,” but even non-Sandler fans will be surprised by this one, which plays like Sandler’s version of “Jerry Maguire” (1996). Show Bo the money!