Review: Adam Sandler’s Genuine Love of Basketball Shines Through in Hustle

Adam Sandler is not above surprising us every so often. He did it not too long ago in the hyper-real world of Uncut Gems, much as he pulled together a moving performance under the watchful eye of Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch Drunk Love. And by my estimate, he now gives us one of the most likable and deeply committed characters in Stanley Sugerman, a well-respected basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s spent the better part of his career traveling across the world, looking for the next great thing to recruit to the club. In the process he’s earned the respect and friendship of many NBA players, coaches, and most importantly, the 76ers owner (Robert Duvall), who rewards Stanley with a long-promised assistant coaching job with the team, meaning Stanley can stop missing his daughter’s birthdays and his wife’s (Queen Latifah) company.

But just after giving Stanley the promotion, the owner dies, leaving the team to his son (Ben Foster, in full douche-bag mode) and daughter (Heidi Gardner), who decides to take a step back from the team and let her brother run it for a bit. Unfortunately, Vince wants Stanley doing what he does best, heading back out on the road as a scout. Begrudgingly, Stanley flies to Europe to meet a few prospects, beginning with Spain, where he stumbles upon a pickup game featuring a promising raw talent named Bo Cruz (real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), who’s working construction and trying to raise his young daughter while living with his mother. Stanley arrives with promises of getting Bo into the NBA, even though his bratty boss is telling him he doesn’t want to check out Bo’s skills.

Taking it upon himself, Stanley flies with Bo back to Philadelphia and gets him into a few exhibition events, where the Sixers management can see him in action and other scouts might take an interest as well. But Bo is untrained and emotional; he reacts when other players trash talk him, and later we find out he got in trouble in Spain for violently attacking someone. All of this is a problem, but Stanley still believes in his guy and promises to train him, calling in every favor he can, even after he quits the 76ers for treating him like garbage. Throwing his own money into a hotel room and training, Stanley uses every ounce of his basketball knowledge and untapped coaching skills to whip Bo into playing shape, eventually getting him into another exhibition match where he is meant to show how much he’s grown in just a few short weeks.

Thanks to Sandler’s deep connections in the world of the NBA (along with co-producer LeBron James), Hustle feels like it takes place in the very real world of professional basketball. Famous faces populate the film, from NBA’s history (Dr. J, Charles Barkley, etc.) to many current players, and Sandler’s Stanley fits right in, able to use these friendships to help his prospect continue training and get a real shot at playing in the big leagues. But the film is just as much a story about a guy whose love of the game runs so deep that he’s willing to sacrifice big moments in his personal life to see his team succeed. 

The movie isn’t all struggle and hardship; Sandler is still Sandler, so he’s cracking jokes (mostly at his own expense) on occasion, but this is not a movie with bits or punchlines or sight gags. There’s even a backstory for Stanley that involves him once being a real NBA prospect and losing his shot defending a teammate. He’s looking for a chance on his own terms, and getting Bo a shot would be a real redemption story for Stanley. Hustle is surprisingly charming and moving, and director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals) is especially gifted at shooting the basketball play, whether it’s Bo’s especially physical street ball performances to showcases of a more professional nature. Sandler takes the game seriously in the real world, and that enthusiasm translates in spades to this genuinely entertaining work.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.