One of the most contentious points of debate in my house is my wife’s insistence there are two universal truths: There’s no such thing as bad mac and cheese, or a bad Adam Sandler movie. They’re her two greatest loves, and I like to remind her that cafeterias exist, as does Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
Suffice it to say, I don’t share her steely resolve when it comes to Sandler flicks. So my expectations were rock bottom for Hustle, the latest sports-adjacent movie from Sandler’s “Happy Madison” production company — which last gave us Home Team, the movie about Sean Payton that was so bad it caused me pain. I’m stunned to now tell you not only is Hustle really good, it might be one of my favorite basketball movies of all-time.
Stanley Sugarman (Sandler) is a long-time international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose aspirations have always been to get off the road and move into coaching. His dream is finally realized when team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duval) informs Stanley he’s moving to the bench — only to pass away before the promotion is realized.
Forced to deal with new owner Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), with whom he’s always butted heads, Stanley is put back on the road with a mandate: Find a difference maker, or be relegated to staying on the road as a scout forever.
This isn’t a unique take on the sports move genre. Hell, the story isn’t dissimilar to 1994’s The Air Up There, albeit without the disgusting racial stereotyping of Africans. However, where Hustle exceeds is by taking the “hidden gem” concept and recontextualizing it in a way that feels real, fresh, and unique.
So much of this is because of Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangomez, who plays Bo Cruz, the Spanish basketball prodigy that Stanley finds in Mallorca on a trip to see another player. Hernangomez is a revelation on the screen, showing incredible range as he expertly weaves his basketball chops with true dramatic range the role requires. Yes, there are the same tropes of “troubled player from a broken home,” we’ve seen in sports movies before — but the progression of Bo and Stanley’s relationship from being player-coach to father-son is organic and feels natural.
I’m not going to say Hustle is perfect, by any means. There are times the film’s treatment of Bo is inconsistent. On moment he’s a provider, thrust into working construction to support his young daughter and his mother. A few scenes later he’s infantilized, fawning over free bread on the airplane to the United States and buying five cheesesteaks at once. The uneven treatment of Bo is a small quibble, but takes away from what the character really is: A young man who feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, finally having someone to lean on in Stanley.
A huge part of what gives Hustle its chops comes from the ungodly amount of NBA involvement in this film. Co-produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s “SpringHill Company,” it’s clear that plenty of favors were called in for this movie. Anthony Edwards stars as the hilariously named antagonist “Kermit Wilts,” a highly-touted prospect out of Kentucky who grows frustrated with Bo’s growing fame — but beyond that the movie is littered with cameos from some of the biggest names in NBA history. Julius Erving, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley all make appearances — and that’s before we get to the other current NBA stars with their fingerprints all over Hustle.
One of the film’s final scenes is Bo’s redemption game, a privately organized pickup game between top prospects and current players, with NBA front office staff watching along. In this one sequence alone you can count the number of stars who turned up to work on Hustle, from Trae Young, Kyle Lowry and Jordan Clarkson, to Celtics’ GM Brad Stevens — as well as a majority of the 76ers, who are frequent throughout the Philly-based story. The noticeable omission is Joel Embiid, who is mentioned but unfortunately never appears on screen.
The epilogue balances the redemption of Stanley and Bo with a surprise that keeps Hustle from being too generic. We’re left with truly one of the best sports movies of the last decade, and one of the best basketball movies of all-time.
These are the kinds of movies I hope Sandler continues with. It’s an easier watch than 2019’s Uncut Gems, but shows that the comedian is at his best when he tones things back. It’s clear that everyone involved with this project were invested in telling a good basketball story, and that’s what makes it thrive vs. something like Home Team, which was trying so hard to be a comedy that it lost all semblance of humor.
Let’s be real: Sandler’s run of Netflix films have been mostly awful, but Hustle is absolutely worth carving out some time and watching. It’s fun, it’s heartfelt, the basketball scenes are awesome, and it’s a breathe of fresh air.