Hustle: Adam Sandler shines in old-school sports underdog story

Hustle, Netflix’s basketball underdog story, delivers a solidly entertaining if predictable story amidst a galaxy of cameos by real-life NBA superstars.

Adam Sandler has always been good at dramatic roles — this isn’t and has never been a controversial thought. Yes, his last such role of him in Uncut Gems was universally acclaimed (not to mentioned, meme-d till kingdom come) in a way that’s not true for all of his dramatic outings of him but the quality was always there. The Meyerowitz Stories, Funny People, spanglish, Punch-Drunk Love — these were all very good films driven, to various degrees, by Sandler’s ability to deliver naturalistic, believable performances across a wide range of dramatic setups, playing off some great co-stars in the process.

Netflix’s latest feel-good film hustle (directed by Jeremiah Zagar), a rags-to-riches basketball story structured around the NBA draft, isn’t in the league of most of the aforementioned titles, to be honest. It is, however, a very competently made, solidly entertaining film that makes up for its paint-by-numbers story through great performances and an infectious air of joie de vivre. The ensemble cast is led by Sandler, Ben Foster and Queen Latifah and includes cameos by screen legend Robert Duvall (91 now and still filling up a scene with his presence) as well as a host of real-life NBA stars including Shaquille O’Neal , Allan Iverson and many, many others (Sandler’s co-producer on the movie is LeBron James, whose involvement makes this a de facto in-house advertisement for the NBA).

Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a journeyman talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has clocked up tens of thousands of air miles traveling for the team, seeking out untested foreign talents who can plausibly be drafted for the NBA. The weather-beaten Sugarman’s instincts and feel for the game are rewarded by the old, ailing team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall)—he’s made Assistant Coach. But Merrick’s sudden demise and the subsequent takeover by his son Vince (Ben Foster) relegates Sugarman to the airplane once again. The super-smarmy Vince doesn’t like him and so, Sugarman lands up at a game where construction worker Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a prodigy with a troubled past who has all the skills needed to succeed in the big leagues—what he lacks is direction and a mentor who believes in him.

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Odds are you’ve seen this film before: gruff, frequently miserable mentor helps troubled sports prodigy bring his game—and his life—back on track. It’s just that Sandler attacks every second of his assignment with such gusto and sincerity that it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. Of course, it helps that Juancho Hernangómez, a real-life NBA star, has all the skills necessary to make the basketball scenes thrilling and urgent.

Latifah and Foster are somewhat wasted in single-note roles (supportive wife and corporate nemesis, respectively) but they both seem to be having too much fun to mind. Meanwhile, broad-strokes themes of paternity fill up the rest of the film. There’s the budding father-by-proxy relationship Sugarman develops with Bo, whose own relationship with his precocious daughter Lucia (Ainhoa ​​Pillet) is very well-written. Sugarman’s daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) has a similarly adorable relationship with him—he does regular cringe-dad things like writing emails to her Math teacher de ella, asking him to give her some extra help (she’s struggling in Geometry). Or insisting that her teenaged friends of her greet him at pickup time, even if cursorily (“Cmon, girls, I know all of you since kindergarten!”).

So confident is the film in its own feel-good nature that it almost tests the boundaries of the sports movie template—for example the training montage is a somewhat outdated trope in this regard but hustle has an almost seven-minute long training scene (and Sandler finds a way to do something new even here). Zagar’s confident, assured direction comes through here, as the scene roars along on a thumping hip-hop-fueled soundtrack.

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Of course, there are downsides as well. The NBA cameos, which begin from the very first scene and continue slowly, like clockwork, every ten minutes or so, can get a little tiring for viewers not familiar with these people and their on-court exploits (especially when said NBA stars are not playing themselves). And while the third act isn’t entirely clichéd—no last-second three-pointers—it is, in its own way wholly predictable.

None, None hustle is a kinetic, stylishly made entertainer that should please both Sandler fans and NBA fans, and offer plenty to the agnostic viewer as well. Like the old-school underdog stories it channels, there is a sincerity to the storytelling that’s increasingly missing in the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster these days.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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