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Adam Sandler is arguably the most basketball affiliated movie star working today. The love of the game was evident in his standup days, when he had that great bit about Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in one game. Who could forget the immortal Lakers game scene in 2011’s “Jack and Jill.” Okay, maybe not. But what about his amazing turn as a degenerate gambler obsessing on “this is how I win” betting on NBA games and players in 2019’s ultra-stressful “Uncut Gems.”
In his latest Netflix picture, “Hustle,” Sandler returns to the boards, and in its opening minutes, the boards are all around the world. Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s on and off planes and in and out of hotels, watching locals all over the states and in Europe. He eats badly—“You’re killing yourself,” his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) says to him on a Zoom call. “That’s the idea,” he responds wryly.
Stanley feeling bad about himself is more subtext than text in Sandler’s disciplined, low-key portrayal. At a meeting with the team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), Stanley strongly urges not signing a German player. Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster, bearded and head shaven, signaling a real lack of vanity, as he looks appropriately ridiculous) wants the guy, and Stanley backs down. Rex notices this before awarding Stanley a coveted assistant coach job.
The gig doesn’t last. Rex passes away, Vince takes over, and the twerp demotes Stanley, instructing him he can get the coaching gig back if he goes back on the road and finds a missing piece.
In Mallorca, Spain, Stanley is entertained by an old friend who wants him to become an agent. No way says Stanley. He wants that assistant coach job back. Hanging on to a dream? “Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams,” he says. “They have nightmares and eczema. And yet. In Spain he sees a local player who’s got the stuff. Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez, a real-life player currently with the Utah Jazz), a tall drink of water with a lot of raw talent, a bit of a temper, and as we learn later, a rap sheet. Vince is resistant, Stanley brings the player to the States anyway, and is soon freelance.
At this point, the movie, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, turns into a variation of “Rocky” had it been told from the point of view of coach Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). Putting his family’s life on the line—fortunately his wife and teen daughter believe in him—he works at sanding down Bo’s rough edges, doing stair runs in the wilds of South Philly, and teaching Bo how to handle trash talk, which proves a rather persistent issue. Once Bo reaches a certain goal Stanley even exclaims “Yeah, Rocky!”
Bo and Stanley find themselves at the receiving end of a spiteful betrayal just as Bo is slated to show the basketball world what he’s got. You could call this a process film with twists—and of course with a feel-good conclusion. The solution to one of Bo’s problems is very 21st century, combined with the clout to book all-star cameos—Stanley’s daughter Alex, who’s looking to go to film school, contrives to make some viral video of Bo in action, introduced by Julius “Dr. J.” Irving himself.
If “Hustle” passes around a lot of sports movie cliches, it does so with a light touch. And its sense of atmosphere, and depiction of Stanley’s milieu, is sensitive and knowing, But be warned: this movie is VERY basketball-oriented. If you’re not a fan, you might feel a little lost. The movie’s got a nearly two-hour running time, and let me tell you, the roster of NBA players and luminaries who appear as themselves or in character roles that end the movie is pretty long. For a minute I actually wondered if Jordan Hull, who plays Stanley and Teresa’s crafty daughter, was a WNBA player herself. She is not. However, a guy named Jordan Hulls currently plays pro basketball in Germany. Just so you know.
Available on Netflix tomorrow, June 8.
Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugarman
Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz
Robert Duvall as Rex
Ben Foster as Vince
Queen Latifah as Teresa Sugarman
María Botto as Paola Cruz
Heidi Gardner as Kat Merrick
Jaleel White as Blake
Raúl Castillo as Oscar