A washed-up basketball scout discovers a phenomenal street ball player while in Spain and sees the prospect as his opportunity to get back into the NBA.
The makers of Adam Sandler’s latest, “Hustle,” are well aware the story they’re telling is far from original. You’ll likely be able to tick off the “developments” in the screenplay with to-the-second accuracy and, if so inclined, be able to come up with a clever drinking game related to its predictable narrative turns. Yet the sense of energy director Jeremiah Zagar brings to the film and the time screenwriters Will Fetters and Taylor Materne devote to characters rather than big game heroics gives the movie such a solid emotional underpinning that you won’t mind watching this story play out once more.
The milieu is the NBA and the team in question is the Philadelphia 76er’s. Former player Stanley Sugarman (Adam Sandler) is a reluctant scout, traveling the world in search of the next big thing – namely an outside shooter who can’t be intimidated that’s a monster on defense as well. He’s hoping such a find will get him a promotion to an assistant coaching position, one he and his wife (Queen Latifah) have coveted for years. However, these plans are derailed when the team’s owner (Robert Duvall) dies and his petulant son (Ben Foster), who’s always resented Sugarman, takes over.
Sure enough, while traveling through Spain, Sugarman stumbles upon Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a raw player with untapped talent that could be the scout’s ticket to getting off the road. It doesn’t take much to convince the young man to go to the States for a try out, but it doesn’t go well. Desperate, Sugarman sets out to give him the edge to make it at the upcoming league combine, paying the kid’s room and board, coaching him night and day.
Again, nothing new here, but the chemistry between the two leads keeps us hooked. Though there were indications earlier that he was capable of more than adolescent tantrums, Sandler’s performance in “Uncut Gems” proved he was finally comfortable enough to branch out into more complex roles. To be sure, Sugarman is no Stanley Kowalski, but there’s an ease to the actor’s approach that makes what could have been a stereotype come across as a sincere, well-rounded character. Sandler’s not trying too hard and that’s the key to his success here.
I have a feeling some of this rubbed off on Hernangomez. A real-life NBA star, in his film debut he stakes out his territory as if he’s posting up under the basket. He brings a natural quality to his role and the chemistry between he and Sandler is genuine. You can tell when an actor is having a good time- there’s a joy in performing that translates on the screen. It’s obvious here Sandler and Hernangomez are having fun and genuinely like one another, which makes all the difference in our buying into their characters’ cause.
Credit Zagar for his innovative approach towards the intense training sequences Sugarman puts Cruz through. Using small, mobile cameras attached to the players while they’re on the court, he puts the viewer in their shoes, running, turning and leaping with these athletes. This allows us to truly appreciate the speed and agility with which they move and how hard they work, while energizing what would otherwise be standard montages.
The inclusion of NBA players, past and present, lend the film a validity that bolsters its sense of reality, Sandler’s inclusion in this world a plus throughout. Yes, “Hustle” is familiar, but that doesn’t work against it. Rather, it proves comforting, while the relaxed performances from its two leads prove too charming to resist.