The 2010s weren’t the best decade for Adam Sandler. He had settled into a comfortable niche starring in movies whose quality generally ranged from tolerable to dreadful, and his lack of interest only became more apparent in the movies he made under his lucrative Netflix contract. But in 2019, his performance in Uncut Gems reminded us that he could be a compelling dramatic actor when he wanted to – although the release of Hubie Halloween less than a year later dampened hopes of a McConaughey-esque late career renaissance. The Netflix sports drama Hustle sees Sandler back in more serious territory, to mixed results.
First, the good news: Sandler is trying, and he’s good, giving life to the role Stanley Sugarman, the struggling talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Stanley’s job has him jet-setting around the world looking for new talent, but it’s a decidedly unglamorous existence: he lives on fast food and spends weeks at a time away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull). When the 76ers’ revered owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) dies shortly after giving Stanley a long-awaited promotion to assistant coach, the team is left in the hands of Rex’s arrogant son Vince (Ben Foster). Vince promptly demotes Stanley back to his scouting job, promising him that if he finds a truly great player he’ll get his assistant coach position. Being something of a pushover, Stanley accepts.
On a scouting trip to Spain, Stanley takes a break from his thus fruitless search to watch a game of streetball, where he stumbles upon Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a once-in-a-lifetime talent who uses his skills to supplement his construction job. Stanley returns to Philadelphia with Bo, but when Vince rejects Bo based on his criminal record, Stanley quits on the spot and redirects his energy to getting Bo in fighting shape for the NBA Draft Combine in six weeks.
Hustle’s focus on a single player and his coach gives the movie a more personal, intimate character than its contemporaries; it never has to deal with the narrative unwieldiness that comes with juggling a team-sized cast. Despite that they’re both playing familiar character types – the nice guy who finished last and the superstar who’s got everything except for belief in himself – Sandler and likable newcomer Hernangómez build a nice rapport. None of the supporting cast get the chance to display such nuance; Latifah’s role is very much the supportive wife and Ben Foster is relegated to providing smirking reaction shots from the sidelines.
Though Hustle’s small scope feels fresh, it’s still a sports movie, and it’s not averse to clichés: we get our fair share of motivational speeches, swelling music cues, and cornball mantras – in this case, Rex’s departing advice to “never back down.” The story, too, checks formulaic boxes: the grueling training, the big game, the insurmountable rival, the rising from the ashes – the last of which manifests via an unconvincing social media subplot. None of these moments are incompetently handled (with the exception of one endless training montage), but they’re rote and obvious.
That said, it’s still a treat to see Sandler making a genuine effort, and he shows an easy confidence in both the light comedy beats and the movie’s more dramatic scenes. Hustle is at its best off the court, where it’s allowed to breathe and find a little humanity in the relationship between its two leads.