Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review


The post Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review appeared first on Consequence.

The Pitch: In his first major dramatic outing since 2019’s Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler returns to the arena of basketball, this time as Stanley Sugarman, a depressed but whip-smart scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike the impulsive, materialistic Howard Ratner, Sugarman is a selfless and honest working man, tirelessly trotting around the world to bring the best of the best to the NBA.

Even with his passion for the game, Sugarman’s intense drive causes friction both at work and at home. His stubborn approach drives a wedge between him and his slimy boss Vin (Ben Foster) and his constant international traveling costs him quality family time with his supportive wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and their aspiring-filmmaker daughter (Jordan Hull).

On one lucky scouting trip to Spain, Sugarman comes across the gifted and colossal street ball player Bo Cruz (Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangómez in his feature debut). Rejuvenated by what this potential star athlete can do for his team, Sugarman takes Cruz under his wing back to America, training him to withstand the emotional and physical pressures of being in the big leagues. As their professional relationship deepens into a good-natured bond, Sugarman begins to fall back in love with his job, even as Cruz’s fraught past and Vin’s malevolence threaten to jeopardize it.

Not Quite a Slam Dunk: Playing temperamental, deeply flawed men filled with regret and a steadfast commitment to family is the Sandman’s bread and butter (see: Click, Grown Ups, Bedtime Stories). It’s particularly compelling when he dials down his goofier, man-child tendencies and taps into a more somber, edgier register like in Reign Over Me, The Meyerowitz Stories, or the aforementioned Uncut Gems.

With Hustle, Sandler attempts to merge his serious portrayal of angsty family-guy underdogs with his real-life enthusiasm for basketball, a seemingly perfect marriage of his strengths as an actor and obsessions as a sports fan. Instead of aiming high, however, Hustle shoots low, settling for earnest, formulaic, and thoroughly predictable crowd-pleasing.

hustle robert duvall adam sandler Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review

hustle robert duvall adam sandler Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review

Hustle (Netflix)

That its ambitions remain at a steady simmer throughout its relatively well-paced two hours isn’t necessarily a bug. In fact, Hustle is probably the most accessible Happy Madison production in years, if at all, most likely due to its significant lack of Sandler’s trademark crass humor.

But the narrative seems almost a little too indifferent toward heightening the stakes, developing its characters, or fleshing out its themes, which leaves the whole film feeling undercooked and restrained to a fault, squandering its potential in favor of something broad, low-key, and ultimately forgettable.

Nothing But Net, Literally: Despite an absence of meaty storytelling, Hustle does score points for endeavoring to build an emotional template, however half-baked and undemanding. Sugarman and Cruz’s Twins-esque dynamic and shared anxieties around fatherhood and success creates some interesting tension.

Here are two men from radically different worlds at different stages in their lives who are both wrestling with the consequences of their past actions — Cruz with an assault charge and Sugarman with a hand injury — and the effect those consequences have on their loved ones. The numerous, slickly edited training montages help fortify that tension, showing us Sugarman’s tough-love encouragement toward Cruz through rigorous gym workouts, complex basketball maneuvers, and early morning runs up the hilly Philly roads. Naturally, Rocky references, both implicit and explicit, are made.

Although those sequences are the most entertaining parts of Hustle, they don’t quite reach the rousing heights of the 1976 boxing drama, mainly because they leave so little room for any real emotional investment in the redemption arc of its odd-couple leads. By narrowing most of its focus down to the training, the games, and the abundance of cameos from actual basketball players, Hustle doesn’t give much weight to Sugarman and Cruz’s individual problems, nor to their own conflicts as mentor and pupil.

Minor confrontations and deep talks come and go in a perfunctory manner. Vin initially appears as an antagonist bent on blocking Sugarman’s triumphs and Cruz’s chances at getting signed, but his presence isn’t all that effective in stopping them. Even when he presents some obstacles, they’re resolved rather quietly and easily by the end.

This emotional underdevelopment continues with Sugarman and Cruz’s respective relationships with their families. While Cruz’s single mother Paola (María Botto) manages to squeeze out some genuine pathos from her slim screen time, Latifah and Hull are relegated to underwritten, simplistic roles, minorly frustrated with Sugarman’s occasional unavailability but ultimately sympathetic and accepting of his all-consuming work ethic.

And despite their best efforts, Sandler and Hernangómez don’t have much comic chemistry to begin with — strangely enough, their banter is more captivating when it doesn’t involve a playful insult or a weakly executed jab. Hustle in general seems ambivalent about bringing amusement into the mix, often muting comedic beats rather than amplifying or engaging with them.

Aside from two brief but humorous bits involving speech-to-text translation and the age-appearance disparity among basketball players — and God knows Sandler can’t also resist telling a self-deprecating fat joke — Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’s script struggles to churn out any other memorable or satisfying moments of levity, in addition to flattening the story’s dramatic impact.

hustle adam sandler 2 Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review

hustle adam sandler 2 Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review

Hustle (Netflix)

Buzzer Beater: What saves Hustle from its mechanical plotting are Jeremiah Zagar’s deft direction and Zak Mulligan’s visually energetic cinematography. Four years since his Sundance darling debut We the Animals, Zagar’s jump from indie to mainstream is practically seamless here. He uses his stylistically sharp eye to make Hustle an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to look at, much more than the usually garish Netflix original fare.

He guides Mulligan’s camera through a surprisingly lively variety of visuals that can enhance an otherwise mundane plot point: Intimate close-ups, high-angle and low-angle, drone shots, swooping dolly movements, all gorgeously saturated and precisely composed. The basketball games are especially fun to watch, recalling the vibrant camerawork from HBO’s Winning Time.

As a Philly native himself, Zagar also finds and subsequently enlivens city streets and neighborhood haunts, grafting a lived-in texture onto a famously passionate sports town. (“They’re the worst,” Sandler declares at one point, “but that’s what makes them the best.”)

The Verdict: On its surface, Hustle appears to be Sandler’s loving homage to basketball and for the most part, it succeeds in articulating the beauty of the game and the specific thrill of finding a player perfect for it. But dig in a little deeper and it’s easy to see that there isn’t much else to hold onto, besides a tender Sandler performance and some inventive imagery.

Considering the dismal slate of Happy Madison/Netflix collaboration projects in recent years, that’s still a decent win. If anything, it’s nice to see Sandler doing something he loves in an environment he’s comfortable in and do it with such sincerity. But hopefully in his next dramatic venture, he’ll go for a three-pointer instead of a lay-up.

Where to Watch: Hustle steps onto the court — the court being Netflix — on June 8th.


Adam Sandler Opts for the Lay Up with Broad Sports Drama Hustle: Review
Sam Rosenberg

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