At some point during the uglier period of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adam Sandler went viral. The comedian’s well-documented penchant for dressing down in oversized t-shirts and lengthy basketball shorts was suddenly being shared on social media at a fairly rapid clip, to the point that articles ranking said fits were being written in addition to ones declaring him 2021’s fashion icon. Adam Sandler has always been dressing this way; he habitually appears on talk shows in Hawaiian shirts, polos and hoodies, as has as recently as this past week. But social media’s fervent embrace of the funnyman’s laid-back style seemed to directly correlate to a desperate search for “wholesome” things to latch onto in dark times and reflect the lasting, pungent fumes of 2019’s wildly popular Uncut Gems, in which Sandler plays a New York City jeweler addicted to basketball betting.
On the surface, it’s hard to believe that Hustle, Sandler’s latest from his Happy Madison company, could have come about without the success of Uncut Gems. Returning to Serious Sandler after 2020’s Hubie Halloween, Hustle boasts exciting direction and textured cinematography from We the Animals’ Jeremiah Zagar and Zak Mulligan. These, alongside Dan Deacon’s idiosyncratic scoring, coalesce into Happy Madison’s attempt to hybridize Sandler’s well-worn persona with the passionate indie empire represented by Gems—the film that further pushed Sandler’s basketball love into the social media spotlight. Even though Hustle had begun filming well before the height of Sandler’s 2021 basketball-fit frenzy, Sandler was nevertheless making headlines for it.
This favorable, late-career persona fortuitously congeals in Hustle, in which Sandler plays a down-on-his-luck basketball scout dad. Throughout his four-decade career, Sandler has shifted from phase to phase, the transitions of which were not entirely unrelated to his real-life public image. His early, wacky, post-SNL films as working-class (at least in feeling if not in financial reality) underdog bachelors led to films increasingly focused on that same wacky guy who’s now a dad with a family, which even led to some family-focused films themselves. Sporadically in between, Sandler worked in so-called “auteur” projects with directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach, displaying his dramatic chops and giving critics a chance to fawn over Sandler’s clear “serious” talent while simultaneously hemming and hawing over his commitment to his beloved Happy Madison “drek.”
But following Uncut Gems’ success, Sandler saw a boost in both critical and fan popularity, arguably spurred first by his well-received Netflix stand-up special Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh one year prior to the Safdie brothers’ film. Following Gems, Hubie Halloween became Sandler’s most critically favored comedy since 2015’s Hotel Transylvania 2. Sandler’s always been embraced by a majority of the American populace regardless of the varying quality of his output. But after his acclaimed turn as Howie Bling, people who had neglected or written him off (including, admittedly, myself) suddenly saw the breadth of his talent in a different light, and many longtime fans were further emboldened by the knowledge that they knew Sandler was an acting heavyweight all along (which he is). Though the Safdies’ disorienting drama alienated many in Sandler’s base expecting another broadly appealing Happy Madison installment, Sandler found another online. They loved Uncut Gems, they loved the way Sandler dressed and, perhaps most importantly, they loved how much the actor really does adore basketball.
Sandler has a storied history of joining random pick-up games off the street in addition to shooting hoops while on the set of his films. It’s a big part of why Sandler went so viral last year; people were filming him joining games, and it was truly pleasant to see. We cling to celebrities we see being kind and being “down to earth” to regular people, so it makes sense why Sandler would suddenly enjoy such a warm reception in the wake of both his fruitful indie film performance and his romance with baggy AND1 brand shorts. This leads to Hustle, a film that manages to take a little bit from both to produce a solid, affecting sports drama starring a middle-aged actor whose on and off-screen charisma have not necessarily revitalized an already prosperous career, but given it another dimension. Sandler has, as he always seems to do, bounced back into a perceived respectability by the film-going class, but this time his affinity for the lowbrow is seen as an attribute of a lovable persona rather than an unfortunate demerit.
One could question the sincerity of this sudden embrace and the gravitational pull towards younger people liking “trashy” things ironically on social media, but I don’t believe there’s anything disingenuous about the recent Sandler celebration. Sandler has transitioned seamlessly into a “chill dad” off-screen identity that defies his status as a ubiquitous cultural icon. Here is this household name strutting around, devil-may-care in giant polos and nylon shorts, playing basketball with ordinary people like he’s one himself. It helps that his performance as Howie Bling was also an awards season sleeper hit, snubbed by the Academy yet nabbing an Indie Spirit award. There, Sandler gave a sweet, funny and widely shared speech in praise of independent filmmaking which evades prestige recognition.
Despite being the highest-earning comedy actor worldwide, Sandler’s always had an underdog appeal.
In Paste’s review, Jesse Hassenger points out that Hustle’s most overt shared blood with Happy Madison is Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman: A former basketball hopeful whose dreams were dashed by injury, now a middle-aged scout who wants to graduate to coaching before it’s too late in his own game. As Stanley, Sandler again takes on the typical underdog mensch that has defined his Happy Madison work. But as Hassenger writes, “simply by bringing Sandler out of his comic comfort zone and into something more closely resembling the actual world, Hustle avoids (some of) the self-aggrandizement that plagues Sandler’s weaker comedies, and unlocks his movie-star charm.”
This is always the case with Sandler’s dramatic undertakings; like Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories or Gems, it’s not really about unlocking, so much as it is about Sandler deciding when and how he wants to use it. But it’s the kind of charm that’s always there, whether it’s in a movie like Hustle, like Jack and Jill (and the sweetly absurd romance between Sandler in drag as Jill and Al Pacino as Al Pacino) or in a friendly pick-up game with a bunch of random strangers on the street. It’s what makes Sandler one of our most loveable pop culture figures, even if he continues to make movies like Sandy Wexler. His on-screen charm is an infectious quality of the man himself. In spite of whatever necessary amount of celebrity PR he has to ascribe to, it reads as less of a put-on and more an unavoidable part of who he is. It’s why his career has successfully harnessed roles as the everyman against the world. He’s not really a movie star, he’s an institution. That institution’s success has been built upon the idea that he could be any one of us—even a dorky basketball dad.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.