Directed By Jeremiah Zagar
Starring – Adam Sandler, Ben Foster, Robert Duvall
The Plot – After being fired, pro basketball scout, Stanley Sugarman (Sandler), is excited, for the first time in a very long while, when he serendipitously discovers Spanish amateur baller, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), playing in a park outside Madrid. Fueled with new-found purpose, Stanley makes it his mission to groom Bo for the NBA as he believes they both can make it.
Rated R for adult language
As a love letter to the NBA and all things basketball, “Hustle” manages to construct an insightfully refreshing vantage point in its depiction, while solidifying once more another silent-but-spellbinding turn from Sandler at the forefront of the narrative. On the former, the script here from writers Will Fetters and Taylor Materne does an impressive job not only in articulating the difficulty and rarity of the game and its ensuing talent level at the top, but also in illustrating the forgettable aspects of the mental game that are often glossed over in contemporary character pieces of any sports movie. It proves that on-court talent, while pivotal to any superstar, is only half of the battle, and that trash talk that feels more visceral in this sport than any other is just as judgmental in determining if a player can hack it on the grandest stage of them all. For the latter, this certainly isn’t Sandler’s best work to date, but it does add further dimensions to the versatility of the actor, which prescribes some aspects in his approach to the character. For starters, Sandler’s passion for the sport has been documented endlessly throughout the duration of his career, and in containing such excitement and unlimited knowledge, Sandler immerses himself seamlessly into the role by attaining a believability that actually transcends the fictional emphasis of the screen. In addition, the same dramatic undertones that enhanced his work in “Punch-Drunk Love” or “Uncut Gems” are restrained for a finer, tighter nuanced approach, delivering the dialogue with earnestness in commitment that nourishes with a surprising amount of ingenuity for the character that I truly wasn’t expecting from a talent scout. The comfort and familiarity of his humor is still there in spurts but refined in ways that work wonderfully with the connective tissue of character personalities and dialogue, which are expertly crafted, but never serious enough to eviscerate occasional fun from the spectrum. Instead, the tone remains committed to dramatic resonance throughout, giving the conflict and its characters caught in peril plenty in the tonal capacities to rest the depth of their performances on. Beyond Sandler, the decision to use actual NBA players, past and present, is an equally vital one not only in the aforementioned believability factor, but also in the in-game sequences themselves, which when combined with Zak Mulligan’s gorgeous cinematography elicits excitement and clarity with satisfying convenience. The editing here is marvelous, stitching together a continuity from basket to basket that easily reciprocates the psychology and choreography of the game, and the captivating consistency of the camera work maintains the urgency of the environment with a slight jolt in shaking scheme that influences just enough without taking away the authentic intensity of the game itself. Outside of the hoops, the tones and textures of the movie’s presentational canvas lends itself entirely to the hip hop culture that has shaped the game in recent years, with a genre dominated soundtrack and gritty canvas that flexes its creativity in ways that conscientiously envelop the film’s subject matter.
While a majority of the creativity swooshes consistently from the court, a few decisions in its storytelling turn the ball over on gaining the momentum to take this toward something truly unforgettable for the genre. For starters, the film is a character study, yet it feels more determined to tell Bo’s story, which I feel is a vital mistake when Stanley was certainly the more compelling character between the two. Stanley’s backstory is mentioned briefly in passing, but I felt there was a lot of meat left on the bone that went virtually unexplored with the duration of the script, leaving him mostly ambiguous as a character who feels shallow when taken away from a game that has dominated much of his relationships. Speaking of relationships, I felt that the script continuously alluded to this lack of synergy with his daughter, yet never pursued it in ways that made for compelling drama. Considering this is a man who has missed nine straight birthdays of his daughter’s due to the game, you would expect that there would be some adolescent resentment, especially considering Bo is treated as a virtual son to Stanley that he never had, but it simply never comes up. For my money, this direction could’ve helped not only in smoothing out the stretched pacing of the third act, which often feels repetitive with two scenes that feel nearly identical, but also in helping to unravel the man at the forefront of the narrative, which is only enhanced by Sandler’s aforementioned impressive work.
“Hustle” might not go perfect from the field, but it is a tension-easing slam dunk as a result of Sandler’s layered humanity and an authenticity for product that never falls short of appreciative elements. Though the film does occasionally follow a predictably paved path from predecessors of the genre, its tender, textured affection for the game feels too appealing to go unappreciated, cementing a basketball film that doesn’t require an interest in basketball to roar from the crowd.
My Grade: 7/10 or B