What They Say:
When a down-on-his-luck basketball scout finds a potential superstar in Spain, he sets out to prove they both have what it takes to make it in the NBA.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Though he has had a long and successful career, I must admit to always being frustrated by the films of Adam Sandler. While I give some legroom to his early films because we all start off young and stupid at one point, you’d think by the time he hit the age of 40 he’d want to make movies he could really be proud of. Instead, he made movies not because they were funny, but because they would shoot somewhere he wanted to go on vacation with his friends. The frustrating part is that Sandler is, in fact, a good actor. I first noticed that he was a real artist with “Punch-Drunk Love,” in which he played a man who dressed respectable on the outside while he concealed rage on the inside. His last film – “Uncut Gems” – was nothing short of an artistic triumph, as he played a compulsive gambler who kept raising the stakes on his own life.
When he failed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor he joked that he would “make a film worse than ‘Jack & Jill,’” a statement so scary I was terrified that he would actually follow through on that threat. Instead, his latest film is “Hustle,” which may possibly be the film Sandler was born to make. When the film opens, we see Sandler playing a scouting coach named Stanley Sugerman, overseeing potential NBA stars from characters that would seem right at home in an Adam Sandler comedy. He scouts these men while eating product placement from Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Within three minutes I sunk into my chair and put my notepad away. It appeared the writing was on the wall: Adam Sandler was going to play Adam Sandler, in a brain-dead story where a scouting coach found ridiculous people to play in the NBA and showed the stuck-up owners that unconventional methods win games.
Not only had I seen him make this movie a few times before, but knowing that Netflix (the production company behind this film) was willing to fund “The Ridiculous 6” all those years ago, I figured we were on auto-pilot before anything had really begun. Sometimes a critic needs a lesson in not jumping to conclusions though, because as the film went on and became more touching and engaging, I realized the opening scene felt more like misdirection than an indicator of things to come. Sandler is well aware of how his movies come off. How could he not: He’s made a comfortable life for him and his family by leaning into these tropes. Shortly after the opening though the movie expands with Sandler playing a man whose lifelong goal it is to coach a basketball team. It’s been his dream for years, but as he gets up in age those dreams appear sailing further away. As he tells his wife “I’m in my fifties. Men in their fifties don’t have dreams.”
It’s a statement not just from a character who is starting to feel rejected that his NBA dream might never come true, I suspect it is also from a man who has looked at his movie career and not been entirely happy with it. He’s publicly wondering if he can possibly make the kind of movies that bring in box office dollars while also giving the performances that will make us snobby film critics happy. I believe his desire to please both is what has resulted in him making this movie. For “Hustle” is not a full-blown comedy, but it does have some trademark Sandler jokes. It’s not an outright drama either, but it has enough heart that you can take it seriously. The story about a coach who discovers a young kid from the streets and promises to have him achieve the NBA dream is one we’ve seen many times, but with Sandler’s charm and (dare I say it) unique insight the film becomes engaging and heartwarming.
Movies like this are successful not because they are new and original, but because they are told in ways that the audiences relate to. Here Sandler is an unconventional actor for a role like this: you don’t expect him to be much of a motivational speaker or some inspirational father figure, yet that is exactly what he is in this movie. This isn’t even a situation where the movie is asking audiences to overlook things to accept this fact; Sandler genuinely inspires and comes off as someone who not only knows what he is doing but is doing the best he can to move an impossible situation forward even though the odds are against him. I even really admired the fact that he’s married to Queen Latifah in this movie.
“Hustle” is a movie that shouldn’t work that (against all odds) works beautifully! Sandler is in top form, giving us a performance that is deep and moving for the critics while retaining his trademark charm that made audiences fall in love with him. It’s a shining example that he could have made movies that were embraced by audiences AND of high quality! Like his Sugerman character, I do wonder what Sandler’s career going forward is. Had this gone to theaters I suspect it would have been a surprise box office hit. On Netflix, it will certainly be watched, but will views help Sandler have the more fulfilling career he so clearly wants? Considering that the streaming bubble is on the verge of popping, I’m uncertain what success a movie like “Hustle” has going forward. Maybe I should just be happy to have what I have? Maybe…but I really enjoyed “Hustle,” and it would be a shame if Sandler is forced to go back to his old schtick when it feels like he’s finally found his voice after all these years.
Streamed By: Netflix