Hustle Review: Adam Sandler & LeBron James Team Up for Netflix Drama

Adam Sandler stars as an NBA scout with unfulfilled tire dreams in this gripping redemption saga from We the Animals director Jeremiah Zagar.

adam sandler really Yes, really loves basketball and – in his post-Meyerowitz Stories era – seems interested in making good movies too. At least he doesn’t seem to actively oppose the idea anymore. Hustle brings those two passions together (again) in a grounded, touching, and immaculately crafted dramedy that has far more in common with Jerry Maguire and The Way Back than any other Happy Madison production on Netflix.

If it falls a little short of those other films by opting for easy lay-ups over more ambitious field goals, “Hustle” still hits the net hard enough to look like the second coming of Madison 23 Productions, the short-lived subsidiary Sandler created for his more serious work (then was put to sleep after “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People” both flopped).

It’s also the best film LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company has spearheaded yet – even better than Space Jam: A New Legacy, if you can believe it – and the rare mid-budget Netflix feature that doesn’t work like it’s been smashed together by an algorithm, even as it adopts the programmatic rhythms of basic streaming content as it trickles through the fourth quarter. Hustle may not be the greatest redemption story ever told about second chances, third careers, and the hard work of overcoming your worst tendencies, but the film clings to the courage of its beliefs to feel like it has skin in skin game.

That courage stems from the decision to hire We the Animals director Jeremiah Zagar rather than jump into some generic studio hack off the bench, and it paid off from the very first take (a cold and shadowy Dolly push , who yells, with all due respect, “We’re a long way from ‘Hubie Halloween'”). A glimpse of Sandler’s crumpled Stanley Sugerman as he slumps through the bowels of a Serbian basketball arena — the final stop on the Philadelphia 76ers scout’s never-ending quest to scour the world in search of big new talent — is all we know must he would rather be somewhere else.

In Stanley’s case, “somewhere else” has always been at home with the wife and teenage daughter he never sees (Queen Latifah plays Teresa Sugerman with enough warmth and seriousness to convey the character’s “stoic woman” stereotypes compensate and make you happy about it (Jennifer Aniston was once a healthy scratch). But there’s a vague element of masochism in Stanley’s work — he’s marred by the self-loathing attitude of someone who believes he deserves to suffer for his sins and eat KFC out of his carry-on, even though the 76s got him in the business class fly. “You’re killing yourself,” says a friend upon seeing Stanley’s latest meal. “That’s the idea,” he replies dryly (Will Fetters and Taylor Materne’s screenplay is often raw to the bone, despite the story’s increasingly formulaic construction).

And just when it seems like Stanley might be cleared of his mysterious past mistakes — just when the 76ers’ beloved owner (Robert Duvall, throwing a long shadow with a brief cameo) gives our guy the job as assistant coach, the he’s always wanted, and everything makes his tire dreams come true – everything goes wrong and Stanley is at the mercy of his old boss’s big grown son (a good and loathsome Ben Foster), who immediately sends him back on the road. Stanley’s only ticket home? Scouting out a potential NBA star that no one else knows about, bringing him back to the States for the combine, and cajoling the dimwitted new owner into thinking it’s his accomplishment.

The first task proves hilariously easy when, at a streetball game in Spain, Stanley meets a penniless 6ft 9in tall construction worker named Bo Cruz (played by Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez, who has the face of a model, the wingspan of a small pterodactyl and the natural screen presence of someone who has never acted before, which suits his character’s naivety very much). The rest… not so much. Think the “Creed”-worthy training montage, the slowly developing sense of shared baggage and mutual trust, and the shit-eating haters that force Stanley and Bo to become a two-man team of their own.

As you might be able to imagine at this point, “Hustle” doesn’t serve up anything you’ve never seen before, but it confidently sticks to the game plan, leaving you rooting for Stanley and Bo – together and separately – every step of the way. Much of that stems from Sandler’s inherent sympathy, which has seldom been as pronounced as here, where it’s not diluted by angry husband-and-child posturing or other scrims the actor hides behind.

Stanley’s just a decent guy struggling to outrun his demons — “Boys in their 50s don’t have dreams,” he jokes, “they have nightmares and they have eczema” — and not let other people beat him in the singles game, that he’s been playing against himself since his own days as a basketball star potential (that Sandler never sets foot on the court is a missed opportunity in a movie that only seems to be headed towards itself Yoda draws a lightsaber at the end of Attack of the Clones Moment). Sandler delivers enough Class A disgruntled coach energy and dropped momentum to sustain a film that makes up for in personality what it lacks in red meat.

Stanley’s painful backstory is laid out in such mundane terms that Hustle seems almost afraid of it, and his family begins to feel regressed from their plot inventions as the film clumsily makes its way around the court around them (I did never even seen anything To attempt a “Deus ex Dr. J” before), but Zagar’s steady hand squeezes a lot of juice from the simplest of dynamics.

If Stanley and Bo’s relationship doesn’t run much deeper than that between Billy Crystal and Gheorghe Mureșan in “My Giant,” well then what does? It doesn’t hurt that Hernangómez is easily able to elicit an athlete’s unique expulsion abroad, or that the combined star power of Sandler and James paved the way for a Hall of Famer-worthy supporting cast of NBA legends past and present has paved the way – that of Hernangómez’s former teammate Anthony Edwards lends credence to the role of Bo’s nemesis even when the film lets the ball fall on his arch – or Philadelphia native Zagar shoots the south side of town with an even greater sense of Hardscrabble- Romance brought to Upper Darby and the city’s western suburbs as the ‘Silver Linings Playbook’.

It’s only during the endgame that “Hustle” loses its heart as the film’s most enduring tension – the tug-of-war between its potential as a legitimate elite sports drama and its purpose as fully entertaining Netflix content – eases in a series of predictable beats that set you on an unexpected ending pretend just to polish off the last rough edges of the story. That extended shrug of a finale is particularly disappointing at the end of a movie that’s only a few great chunks away from getting its first breaths of reasons why Sandler is so much better, with the likes of “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Uncut Gems” than the “Do-Over” years would suggest. If he keeps working this hard, the same man who once symbolized Netflix’s commitment to mediocrity could eventually emerge as the streamer’s biggest draft pick.

Grade B

Hustle opens in select theaters on Friday, June 3rd. It’s available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, June 8th.

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Lindsay Lowe

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