Adam Sandler’s prolific career on Saturday Night Live and a plethora of mid-1990s comedies haven’t kept the funnyman from large swings and misses during the past seven years as his Happy Madison Productions has partnered exclusively with streaming service Netflix to create content.
The laughs haven’t quite landed for the comedian in quite some time, though Sandler has proven to be exceptional playing against type in more dramatic roles with films like 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories and 2019’s Uncut Gems.
Hopefully, Sandler may have found the formula to success with his production company, leaning more dramatic than comedic with his latest Netflix partnership, the sports dramedy Hustle, which finds Sandler portraying a basketball scout traveling the world to find the missing piece of a championship team for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Director Jeremiah Zagar’s film works with a more subdued Sandler perfectly matched opposite real NBA player Juancho Hernangòmez of the Denver Nuggets, who plays a diamond-in-the-rough prospect from Spanish mean streets that Sandler’s Stanley Sugarman must bring to the U.S. and convince teams that Bo has what it takes to be a star.
Sandler leans into the everyman, blue-collar personality of Stanley that’s quiet when he needs to be and demonstrative when he has to be. The character doesn’t truly come alive until he meets Bo, and audiences can clearly see the light come on in Stanley’s eyes when he realizes just how special Bo is as both a player and a person.
The drive that Sandler showcases in these training scenes with Bo is highly reminiscent of another classic Philly sports movie, Rocky, with Sandler perfectly becoming the Mickey-like father figure to Bo’s Rocky. Hustle leans into this connection strongly, especially in the extended montages and sequences where Bo has to run up a hill faster and faster each day to demonstrate his work ethic and emerging talent, much in the same way as the iconic steps sequence in the Oscar-winning boxing film.
For a first-time actor, Hernangòmez is ideally cast as Bo and while it’s clear that he has the basketball chops to nail the role, what sets him apart from other athletes-turned-actors is the effortlessness he can pull off the emotional moments of the film. It’s rare for someone with as little experiences as Hernangòmez must genuinely develop chemistry with other actors and have a naturalness to his performance that will make audiences forget who they’re watching and live in the world of the film.
This is also true to a lesser extent for other basketball players playing roles instead of themselves. Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards does a terrific job playing the trash-talking antagonist Kermit Wilt-Washington and former Houston Rockets guard and TNT analyst Kenny Smith is a natural as Stanley’s ex-teammate and player agent Leon Rich.
Hustle is also accented nicely with veteran character actors filling key supporting roles with Robert Duvall making a terrific extended cameo as the team’s owner, Ben Foster as his son and a primary antagonist for Stanley, and Queen Latifah as Stanley’s mostly supportive wife.
Zagar does a great job of making Hustle feel more cinematic than the average sports dramedy, cutting the frame to a more widescreen 1x85x1 to elongate the visuals horizontally. This works especially well in the basketball segments to help viewers feel the width and length Bo has as a tall, dominant player as well as the overall chaotic movement street hoops can achieve as audiences watch all the players simultaneously.
Combined with a mood-driven score and heavy contrast on colors, there’s an inherent gritty quality to Hustle that helps establish the credibility of the film overall.
Hustle is exactly the sort of mid-budget sports dramedy that should have been played theatrically, but Netflix also gives the film a much wider potential audiences immediately and Zagar’s film puts Sandler in the right position to make a movie that viewers should go out of their way to check out.