Stanley Sugerman didn’t dream about being in the NBA for the high life. He’s the veteran scout who eats fast food takeout in a five star hotel room, where he spends every waking work night wondering if he can see his daughter’s (a very good Jordan Hull) next birthday. A tireless and often thankless life that has consumed Stanley, who loves working for the Philadelphia Sixers yet wishes it was behind the bench and not on a constant plane ride.
Played by Adam Sandler with that go-for-broke energy he brought to the brilliant “Uncut Gems,” yet toned down to a more everyman scale, Stanley sees a unique opportunity in the unknown talent, Bo Cruz (the larger-than-life Juancho Hernangomez). If he scores his young boss (Ben Foster chewing scenery slowly) a big draft pick, maybe his coaching career has some juice left in its old knees.
Jeremiah Zagar’s “Hustle” thrives on the lived-in atmosphere and a script that gets elevated by its cast. Outside of Sandler, Queen Latifah is given a whole-bodied role as Stanley’s wife, the real rock of the family that holds the group together. Hull, Latifah, and Sandler really put in the work to make their relationship seem very authentic and also funny in a relative way. Will Fetters and Taylor Materne’s screenplay pays delicate attention to the family aspect of this sports tale, and it enlivens the movie.
Sure, there are some formulaic brush strokes in the second and third act, ones that any sports film fan will easily pick out. But that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, especially with every unit doing their part well. Anthony Edwards (not Goose!) puts real life in the rivalry his potential #1 draft pick, Kermit Wilts, forms with Hernangomez’s Bo. Robert Duvall has a small role, which makes any film better. Kenny Smith is basically Stanley’s “Goose” here, and excels in the role.
What gets special attention here is the NBA drafting and scouting process. Zagar’s film gives the basketball fan a unique insight into the perilous journey taken by both player, coach, and scout in the process that fans only get to see a certain portion of. Unlike the NHL and NFL, which has its process decorated in documentary form more often than other sports, the NBA hasn’t seen this sort of access cinematically since the 1990’s. The screenplay doesn’t just place its bets on an unlikely prospect and unconventional scout striking potential gold; it creates a multi-faceted approach that gives you different looks at the many lives that push this sport.
Sandler is the glue. I appreciate the fact that he picks his dramatic roles carefully, but I really wish he’d do more of these types of roles. He can create easygoing comedy with his friends in his B-side flicks, but it’s unpredictable spark plugs like Howard in the Safdie Brothers’ “Gems” or the weary dream-chasing of Stanley here that brings out the best in the actor. His latest may lack the explosiveness of his “Punch Drunk Love” protagonist, but it’s still an easy jump shot for Sandler.
It’s an instant synch with this role, one that I grasped onto very quickly. Once you establish a connection and a care for Stanley-the rest of the movie is playing with a 15-point lead. If “Hustle” has a Lebron, it’s Sandler. Bearded and more wistful and aware than most of his characters, you appreciate the rugged soulfulness in Stanley’s drive.
Netflix needs to make more of these types of movies. Simple-minded stories with a careful yet sure approach that alternates as feel-good sports cinema. “Hustle” may not be an MVP-type player like “Blue Chips,” but it’s a solid movie that should goes down easy on a hot summer day.
Rating: Worth watching.
Photo Credit: NETFLIX