As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are essentially two Adam Sandlers.
The first Adam Sandler is the comedic actor who, after getting off to a good start with Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, has appeared in some of the most critically-derided films ever made. This is the Adam Sandler who has won multiple Razzies for Worst Actor, whose films were often used, in the days before the MCU and DCEU, as an illustration of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, and who is best known for keeping his friends steadily employed.
The second Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who has appeared in a string of dramatic and challenging films and who has consistently proven himself to be a sensitive dramatic lead. The second Adam Sandler plays the same type of characters as the first Adam Sandler but with an added dose of regret. If the first Adam Sandler specializes in characters with no self-awareness, the second Adam Sandler plays characters who are so self-aware that they’re often paralyzed by ennui. The second Adam Sandler would probably be a multiple-Oscar nominee if not for the first Adam Sandler.
If you only knew Adam Sandler from Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, The Meyerowtiz Stories, and his other dramatic films, you would be totally justified in thinking that he had to be one of our most acclaimed actors. By that same token, if you only know him from Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, and his other comedies …. well, you would be totally justified in having the opposite opinion. I think that’s one reason why critics get so much more frustrated with Sandler’s dumb comedies than they do with other comedies. By the point, we all know how good Sandler can be when he wants to be.
Hustle, Sandler’s latest film, casts Sandler is another dramatic role. Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a middle-aged scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Stan spends almost all of his time traveling across Europe, checking out international basketball players who are hoping for a chance to come to America and play in the NBA. As a result, Stan is frequently away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and he’s missed his daughter’s last few birthdays. Stan, who was a college basketball star but who never made it into the NBA because of his own dumb decisions, may make a lot of jokes but one need only look at his perpetually downcast eyes to see that Stan is not a happy man. The only thing that’s really keeping him going is that the owner of the 76ers, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), is planning on making Stan an assistant coach.
Unfortunately, the same night that Rex tells Stan that he’s going to be promoted, Rex dies. Rex’s apparently sociopathic son, Vin (Ben Foster), takes over the organization and announces that Stan will continue as a scout. (When Stan mentions that he hasn’t shared a birthday with his daughter in his years, Vin smirks. You know, just in case you needed another excuse to dislike the character.) Stan heads back to Europe. In Spain, when his plans to scout a local player don’t work out, Stan stumbles across a pick-up game and discovers a local construction worker named Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, an actual basketball player who makes a surprisingly assured debut). Bo is nearly 7 feet tall, he’s got a daughter at home, and he just happens to be a phenomenal basketball player.
With the help of a Facetime call to Dirk Nowitzki (one of the many former and current basketball players to appear in Hustle), Stan is able to convince Bo that he actually is an NBA scout. Stan takes Bo back to America but it turns out that 1) Bo has a criminal record that makes the league weary of him and 2) Vin would rather humiliate Stan than give Bo a fair chance. Driven to quit his job, Stan devotes his time to trying to get Bo ready to enter the NBA draft. Not only is Stan trying to make Bo’s dreams come true but he’s also trying to find some redemption for his own past mistakes. And, of course, Stan is also trying to save his career because it’s not like his daughter’s film school is going to be pay for itself!
Basketball is my least favorite sport, largely because I can’t stand the sound of all those squeaky shoes on the court. And Hustle is a film that was definitely made for basketball fans. Between all the player cameos and the jokes about Philadelphia sports fan, Hustle has a very specific audience in mind. That said, Hustle is such a sweet-natured and sincere movie that it can be enjoyed and appreciated even by those of us who aren’t into basketball (or sports in general). Hustle hits all of the expected sports movie clichés but, wisely, it keeps the focus on Stan and Bo’s friendship. Neither Stan nor Bo are portrayed as being perfect. Instead, they’re two men who are trying to do their best, despite both carrying a lot of emotional baggage. As such, the film becomes less about getting drafted and joining team and more about making peace with both the past and the present. Sandler and Hernangómez both give heartfelt performances and director Jeremiah Zagar does a good job of framing the action. This is a film about basketball that was made be people who obviously love basketball but, fortunately, the rest of us can enjoy it too.