Good sports dramas go beyond the court or field to get you invested in the person behind the athlete. Hustle ends up being a pretty good sports film as it not only shows the heart of the athlete, but the drive of the guy behind the budding superstar.
Adam Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a hard-grinding scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Along the way Stan has made plenty of contacts among the NBA’s inner circle of owners and players.
Still, the quest to find the next great international star is full of long hours, living out of hotel rooms dining on whatever fast food is available at airports.
It’s not exactly the end game Stan envisions as he’s forced to spend weeks away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull).
Fortunately, Stan’s boss/76ers owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) is ready to take him off the road and put him behind the bench as an assistant coach.
That doesn’t fall in line with Rex’s son, Vince (Ben Foster, The Contractor), who wants Stan to find the next NBA unicorn.
Dejected, but resigned to his career path, Stan sets back out to Spain where he indeed discovers a diamond in the rough. Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) has the raw talent to be special. All he needs is a chance and someone to believe in him.
Enter Stan, who sees a prodigy that has the potential to be a first-round draft pick. While Vince isn’t a believer, Stan might still have an avenue to get Bo into the pros via his former teammate/sports agent Leon (NBA legend Kenny Smith).
It’s not going to be easy, but with enough drive and determination both of their dreams just might come true.
Director Jeremiah Zagar doesn’t shortcut the grind with extensive training montages that show the grueling extent of the work Bo has to put in to get a shot at getting drafted.
Zagar doesn’t make the life of an NBA prospect as glamorous as hoisting a gazillion threes trying a terrible Steph Curry impression. This makes Hustle a rarity in the sports genre by not placing arbitrary dramatic roadblocks to the aspiring star — simply getting a foot in the door requires an intense commitment to work and an unrelenting drive.
The evolution of Sandler from Saturday Night Live man child movie star to serious actor has been fascinating.
It’s the same kind of unlikely career arc that Jim Carrey followed to great acclaim as he emerged from class clown slapstick performer to a well-respected actor capable of engaging dramatic roles.
Sandler brings a surprising amount of earnestness and vulnerability to his performance. Stan hasn’t had an easy ride in life, but he’s not wracked with bitterness and frustration.
It’s not a coincidence the film is set in Philadelphia. Screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters definitely don’t mind playing up the underdog Rocky theme for both Bo and Stan’s arcs.
One huge perk of having LeBron James as a producer is Hustle isn’t lacking for NBA stars from the past and present to make a cameo.
Some play themselves in a nice nod to get younger generations to learn more of the game’s earlier legends. Current stars, like the terrific Anthony Williams, who stars as Bo’s tryout rival/tormentor Kermit Wilts, are a mix of original characters and themselves.
Zagar stages the basketball sequences with a high level of intensity without treating the action like a video game. Materne and Fetters thankfully avoid running the standard conventional sports drama cliches. Alex isn’t an aggravatingly bratty teen annoyed that Stan wasn’t around as much as she wanted.
Teresa doesn’t fix all of Stan’s problems but provides a welcome safety net when things go haywire. It’s not a multilayered role for Latifah, but one she elevates thanks to her welcoming screen presence.
Vince isn’t a villain caricature fabricating problems for Bo. And Stan and Bo aren’t frustratingly self-destructive. Bo’s path to NBA superstardom isn’t this linear path with one speed bump. There’s surprising obstacles that come off more realistic than the usual sports drama.
And there’s some fun modern flourishes that make sense in the context of the story without feeling hokey.
Hustle is an easy sports film to enjoy thanks to another winning performance from Sandler and an entertaining approach to the traditional underdog drama.