It’s always been the worst-kept secret that Adam Sandler is a fantastic dramatic actor, who stopped utilizing those dramatic chops after “Happy Gilmore”, “Billy Madison” and “Punch Drunk Love,” for the loud, boorish comedy he would become synonymous with. However, 2017’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” and 2019’s “Uncut Gems” saw a resurgence of said dramatic chops. These movies never compromised with the Sandler shtick of shouting and the exaggerated accent, but they also focused on letting Sandler explore different gears within those familiar trappings. “Uncut Gems” was the prime example of the Safdie Brothers showcasing a side of Sandler intentionally unlikeable, and yet those shticks managed to heighten the charm that made Sandler and thus his character Howard’s descent compelling to follow.
It, however, cannot be understated that “Hustle” is a love letter to basketball, especially its players. It bears reiterating that basketball is one of the few sports that deserves the moniker “sexy”, in terms of its visualization in movies. The pace, along with its relatively contained surroundings, ensures that the dynamic nature of the sport is captured effectively, along with the consequent rivalries, athleticism, excitement, and frustration multiplied tenfold. From a technical point of view, the director can use different angles and frames to shoot every second of the beautiful synchronicity of the player and the ball as he weaves in and out of his opponents surrounding him to finally dunk the ball in the basket. And, of course, look good while doing it.
Director Jeremiah Zagar knows this. He also knows that the story in his hand is the quintessential underdog sports story, with not a lot of room for change in the framework. So it comes down to execution and treatment. Zagar thus focuses on Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who is on the road for the majority of the year, scouting players from around the world, living off of takeout and five-star hotels, focusing only on tabulating the stats of the players such that the higher-ups would select the best option. And even then, he is the underdog as his boss, who promised him the post of Assistant Coach of the 76ers, dies suddenly, and his son Vin, played by a brilliantly prickly Ben Foster, takes over the running of the team and removes Stanley from the post and back on the road. Stan, who had elected to finally settle down in one place with his family, must now run the same errand. Until he meets street basketball prodigy Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a construction worker who is also a fantastic defender. Sensing the potential in him after catching one of his games, Stan convinces Bo to come to America with him and take part in the NBA Combine to get noticed and be put in the draft. But like any good underdog story, the road isn’t a smoothly paved one but is riddled with potholes of disbelief, insecurity, and self-doubt. Both Bo and Stan have flaws that they both have to overcome as they work together.
A good sports movie requires a great training montage, a good rapport between the coach and the players, and, of course, a heartwarming third act. While Hernangomez as Cruz feels stiff in the beginning, his interactions with Sandler help him to loosen up his acting chops. Sandler, on the other hand, is in fine form. He carries world-weariness to Stan’s character, his genial warmth masking the steely determination and frustration underneath. While there are moments where the worst aspects of his humor threaten to bubble over, it is very deftly handled for the majority of the runtime. It manages to break the tension in the most emotional and inspiring way, eliciting genuine laughter with light humor. The chemistry between Sandler and Hernangomez sells the moments of pathos and inspiration, as Sandler joins the long line of Hollywood coaches able to deliver platitudes with a sense of laidback conviction. His moments of self-doubt and, consequently, his chemistry with his wife, played by Queen Latifah, highlight the emotional poignancy.
The almost one-man show is also helped by Zagar’s direction, especially his dynamic editing when showcasing the actual game on the court. He can ratchet up the excitement, especially during one-on-one matches. It helps that the soundtrack is brilliant, its use of seldom used hip-hop tracks adding a new flavor to the inspirational background themes. The criticism of the film lies in its predictability, which remains unchanged as more difficulties are introduced in the narrative. They also turned out to be mostly predictable. While Ben Foster as the prickly owner is fun to watch, he doesn’t leave enough of an impression to remain a worthwhile antagonist. On the other hand, Anthony Edwards, playing Kermit Wilts, is surprisingly watchable, even as the script strives to make him cartoonishly hate-able as an excuse to raise the stakes. The film’s use of real-life basketball players among the cast is deftly handled without drawing too much attention or distracting the narrative.
“Hustle” is thus a typical underdog basketball story about a coach and prodigy standing up against the system to prove their worth. Its predictability is offset by its strong direction and fantastic acting by its lead, ably supported by Hernangomezz as the co-lead, whose acting evolves naturally as the movie progresses. Their relationship is the primary reason why, even after having watched and knowing all of the beats of the story, the training montage still inspires you, and the final 20 minutes still manage to bring a smile to your face. Tropes have existed for so long because fantastic execution has allowed these frameworks to exist as tropes, and execution again will allow these tropes to work perfectly.