Last year, MEL magazine ran one of the significant investigative journalism stories of our time. “An Oral History of Adam Sandler, Pickup Basketball Legend” revealed how the star of Uncut Gems and countless family-friendly comedies has been dropping into street games for years now. What’s more, opponents say he plays with a seriousness you wouldn’t expect from a millionaire actor (apparently, he also dresses terribly for a millionaire). As one of them recalled: “What’s crazy is people were coming at him, trying to make an example of him, but he was locked in, he wasn’t just trying to stay out of the way and be the outlier on the team…He was hustling, grabbing rebounds, making the extra pass.”
Maybe Sandler thought after one of these games, hold on, I’m super-famous, what’s stopping me from playing with my idols? The result is Hustle, a film packed with NBA stars, with Sandler playing a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who discovers a talented unknown—an uncut gem, if you will—in Spain. Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman isn’t an actual scout and Bo Cruz, the maverick whose game he develops, is fictional too. But Juancho Hernangómez, who plays Cruz, is with the Utah Jazz, and the film is littered with other pro-ball players, some playing characters, others like Julius Erving, Allen Iverson and Dirk Nowitzki appearing as themselves.
If you think that sounds like wish-fulfilment… well, it is. Sandler already did it once. In Funny People, he played a version of himself, a wealthy, popular comedian who finds out he has cancer. The actor, a competent amateur musician, surrounded himself with old pros like James Taylor and Jon Brion in the film.
Hustle is very much geared towards who love sports films, with all their cliches and dumb emotional appeals. Stanley is the typical burnt-out guru who never got his due appreciation; Bo is the hotshot who can’t keep his emotions in check. When Stanley dramatically resigns from the 76ers, it’s difficult not to think of Jerry Maguire. There’s nothing deep or innovative going on here (watch Winning Time on Disney+ Hotstar if you’d like to sink your teeth into a more substantial basketball drama). But the on-court action is fast and exciting, and all the sport genre beats are in place. There’s a terrific training montage, which segues into a second training montage, at the end of which Bo does a little Rocky run (this is Philadelphia, after all).
And then there’s Sandler. The actor channels the motormouth he played in Uncut Gems, alternately pushing and encouraging Bo and constantly hustling everyone else in an effort to get his protégé into situations where big-time scouts can see him. It’s a fine, ornery performance. When Stanley finally gets somewhere in the NBA himself, you can see from Sandler’s face it means something to the actor, even though it’s just pretend. It’s difficult not to get caught up in his excitement.
Hustle is streaming on Netflix.