“Hustle,” a new sports dramedy staring Adam Sandler, now streaming on Netflix, is an underdog story like “Rocky,” if that movie featured Burgess Meredith’s name above the title instead of Sylvester Stallone.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a veteran basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Decades spent on the road searching for new talent have left him weary and jaded, missing his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull).
His new boss, the arrogant Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), isn’t making the job any easier. The two butt heads over Stanley’s latest find, Spanish b-ball phenom Bo Cruz (NBA star Juancho Hernangomez). On the court Bo is all unrefined power, used to hustling unsuspecting players for cash. Stanley sees greatness in him, but Bo’s troubled past raises alarms with Merrick and the 76ers management.
Convinced he has a winner, Stanley brings Bo to the United States. They form a bond based on their love of basketball and family, and together set out to prove that they have what it takes to succeed on the court and in life.
“Hustle” may be formulaic and easy to read, but it succeeds because of the chemistry between Sandler and Hernangomez. What begins as an odd couple pairing quickly becomes something more. This isn’t “Billy Madison” with a basketball, it’s a story of fathers and sons, of mentorship, one that provides uplift while avoiding the sentimentality that often shoehorns its way into movies like this.
Sandler’s performance is simple. It’s not as showy as his work in “Uncut Gems” or “Punch Drunk Love.” Instead, he infuses Stanley with world weariness tempered with resilience, to create a sincere portrait of a man and the game he loves. Screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters nail the seriocomic tone, feeding Sandler a string of self-depreciating one-liners that help define the character.
Director Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan capture the excitement of the game with frenetic on-court camera work that heightens the drama and showcases the NBA action and player skills.
“Hustle” is an upbeat, predictable sports story but succeeds because of the stakes. You’ll know where this story is going (NO SPOILERS HERE) but it transcends the usual sports narrative because the characters have it all on the line. It’s not about the basketball, really, it’s more about the struggle of overcoming adversity and thus has a universal appeal even if you’ve never heard of an Alley-Oop.