Hustle is unlike any other Adam Sandler movie. Mind, it’s quite like any number of other movies: An underdog coach figure takes on an immensely talented athlete whose background nonetheless makes him an underdog, too. There are training montages, supportive-yet-worried family members and clearly delineated antagonists. These elements can be found in a number of Sandler vehicles, too—specifically Happy Gilmore, the seminal golf comedy that gives Sandler’s Happy Madison production company half its name—but Hustle is an unusual Happy Madison production in that it features nary a moment of screen time for Allen Covert, David Spade or Peter Dante. While it chronicles family-adjacent antics at a lush resort, it is arguably not a comedy at all.
Sandler has broken from his broad-comedy patterns in the past. But despite their use of the durable, inimitable Sandler persona, Uncut Gems, Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories all announced themselves as more idiosyncratic, textured movies than fare like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Even his more mainstream dramedies outside the Happy Madison shingle, like Reign Over Me and Spanglish, had an ineffable weirdness—beyond the baseline weirdness of having an expanded repertory company that includes sportscaster Dan Patrick and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. With Hustle, Sandler has finally found a movie where it actually makes sense to hire Patrick and O’Neal.
Counterintuitively, Hustle is possibly the most normal movie Sandler has ever made; it’s practically an alternate history where he fits himself into classic Hollywood star vehicles rather than building his own out of NYU and SNL buddies. He plays Stanley Sugerman, a longtime scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose dream of coaching basketball seems further away as he moves through his 50s. On a scouting trip in Spain, he has a chance meeting with Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez)—an enormous, undiscovered raw talent—and brings him back to the U.S., convinced that Bo has a future in the NBA. The slickster (Ben Foster) newly placed in charge of the team isn’t sold; will this friction cause Stanley to strike out on his own?
This is not a suspenseful movie, at least not regarding its final outcome. In the moment, though, Hustle is an involving sports drama with a pulse and sense of humor. It seems strange at first, to consider how many basketball movies focus on wheeling, dealing and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, rather than the climactic, bombastic gameplay of baseball or football. But like He Got Game and High Flying Bird (if not in their league), Hustle understands that the impossible speed and grace of basketball is difficult to capture cinematically. Instead, the movie concentrates on how an adrenalized love for the sport spills over to everyone in the orbit of these gifted players.
That obviously includes Sandler, whose love of pickup basketball has been well-documented. In the movie’s most pronounced overlap with his broader Happy Madison output, it flatteringly casts him as a mensch and a former baller, humbled by an incident and injury in his past. (It’s the kind of obligatory hit-bottom backstory that conveniently avoids affecting his character’s abilities.) Yet, 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. Turns out, Sandler’s trademark strained yell, soft-spoken mumbling and just-joshin’ insult humor being used to inspire a promising young athlete isn’t a joke at all. His low-key chemistry with Hernangómez has plain-spoken sweetness.
Of course, evoking backstage-basketball movies also makes it difficult to overlook how Hustle reorients a sport with so many Black players (literally dozens appearing in this film as themselves) around a white player mentored by a white coach. This is very much a normie sports picture, where player exploitation doesn’t get much discussion and the rich team owner is a bad guy because he’s not as richly principled as the rich team owner who preceded him. But for a movie that’s almost desperate to feel good about a professional sports industry, Hustle avoids laying it on too thick. (That one of the movie’s final emotional beats goes unspoken in dialogue feels like an underdog miracle all its own.)
Director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals) shows plenty of hustle—both quickness with his roving camera and a little bit of the other kind, where he helps sell some bits of the story that feel like bullshit. Zagar has so much energy to burn that he lets his training montage go on about twice as long as necessary—it practically has discrete movements—even though it only increases the chances of biting imagery from fellow Philadelphia sports saga Creed (and its grandfather Rocky, which gets a direct shout-out).
Most of Hustle stays on the right side of shameless, and plays a little better because of how few mid-budget, non-effects-oriented star vehicles make it to the screen these days, nevermind with any kind of visual flair intact. Netflix in particular rarely hits that middlebrow sweet spot. Like Sandler himself, whose late career has been such a boon for them, the streamer often seems to nail the highbrow stuff while fumbling the broad crowdpleasers. If it’s no longer surprising that Sandler is a good, steady actor, it’s still fun to find out he can find new ways to play to the cheap seats.
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Writer: Taylor Materne, Will Fetters
Starring: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster
Release Date: June 3, 2022 (Netflix)
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.