“You taking me to see basketball or a cock fight?”
“We do everything.”
Including falsifying paperwork, obviously.
“22 years old?”
The opening dialogue of Hustle not only fits the Serbian dungeons scene but wholly describes Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. Yup. Party like it’s 1999. Happy Gilmore (1996) and Billy Madison (1995), The Wedding Singer (1998) gave Sandler the cache to ask for bigger budgets. The Waterboy (1998) and made him a household name. Basketball has given him another branch to extend his career and show his generational talents go beyond dumbed-down comedies.
So, thankfully, Hustle is a return to basketball. Adam Sandler has once again shown he is at his best when combining the worlds he loves. He finds a different gear when his movie is based around basketball, this time showing the power of second chances, forgiveness, and understanding. Simply, the Brooklyn-born Sandler does his best work when he views the subject matter as near-sacred, and Hustle sets a new standard for the sports movie genre in the process.
Sandler tried to step in as a redeemable sport in the reboot of The Longest Yard (2005) and Happy Madison did produce Home Team (2020), but both were cinematic airballs compared to the quality of camera work and acting in Hustle and Uncut Gems. Sports movies will always be chock-full of clichés, it’s just part of the genre at this point. Tropes be damned, Sandler as Stanley Sugarman makes you CARE more than anyone this side of Nick Nolte’s Pete Bell in Blue Chips.
Stan the Man is a bit down on his luck, running on fumes while chasing European talent for the Philadelphia 76ers. His wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) wants him home for their daughter’s (Jordan Hull) birthday sometime in the next decade. Sugarman almost gets his chance to settle down in a coaching role, then a death changes the team’s plans. Once Robert Duvall’s Rex Merrick passes on, his son Vince (Ben Foster) steps in. He immediately sends Stan back across the pond to help fix Vince’s drafting mistakes.
This is when Sandler’s wise perspectives and basketball’s timelessness take over the storyline.
I’m not saying Juancho Hernangomez’s Bo Cruz isn’t great. Although it didn’t ask for much, he is fantastic in his role. It’s just that Sandler’s portrayal of the struggle to go from playing in the streets as a kid to starring in the NBA is so on point. If it wasn’t, he would not have gotten so many NBA stars to make a cameo appearance.
LeBron James is a producer. Dirk pops up on FaceTime. Willy Hernangómez is playfully cut from the squad after his teammates see Juancho’s Bo Cruz work out. Trae Young, Jordan Clarkson, Khris Middleton, Aaron Gordon, Kyle Lowry, Seth Curry, and Luka Dončić all found their way on set. Grayson “The Professor” Boucher and Larry “Bone Collector” Williams add the streetball vibes. Tobias Harris even challenges Bo Cruz on the blacktop.
Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and Julius Erving all show up to represent Philly. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson bring Hall of Fame cache. Brad Stevens and Doc Rivers coach the pickup games. Boban Marjanović comedically tries to pass as a 22-year-old Serbian. Moritz Wagner is a German prospect. There is even a reference to the Andrea Bargnani trade to get fans of the New York Knicks nice and riled up.
The NBA bought into Sandler’s Bo Cruz story. Anthony Edwards uses his role as Kermit Wilt-Washington to secure a lucrative film career as a scene-stealing smile with sassy swagger. Kermit is the future face of the league playing foil to Bo Cruz’s dreams. He is also in his ear about his daughter, causing Cruz to lose his cool in front of a gym full of front office decision-makers.
Edwards is perfect, despite not being cast in the role until the second half of filming. Sandler had apparently been scouting press conferences and Edwards got his attention. Edwards then got on set and went to work learning the character and rewriting more fitting lines with Hernangómez.
Director Jeremiah Zagar explained, “Anthony would rewrite his lines with Juancho on the day of shooting to make sure they felt like him… There’s this shot in the movie that’s a oner, where Bo Cruz walks in and meets Kermit for the first time. And the way Anthony was able to deliver his line perfectly every time, as that camera moved around, is something that seasoned actors have trouble with. So right away you were like, ‘Oh my god!’”
Sandler shows that trust allowed Hustle to go beyond the clichés. The deeper you get into Hustle the more it feels like the NBA. The lines get blurred when you see Trae Young calling for the ball multiple times, but Sandler’s love of basketball and storytelling shines throughout.
Hustle is no Uncut Gems. Uncut Gems will go down in history as Sandler’s best film ever. But Hustle is close because it cuts through the bullshit clichés and tells an authentic story. Sandler’s Sugarman is haunted by a college DUI that cost his team and derailed his career. Perhaps, as his friends and family theorize, he could have gotten back on a coaching track sooner if he just forgave himself.
Likewise, Cruz has to come to an understanding with himself. He walks not in his father’s shoes, nor can he forgive. At least not until his mother talks some sense into him with a new perspective. The hate he feels is of a boy that could not understand the reasons for certain sacrifices. The second chance and compassion come from a man chasing his dreams so his daughter can have a better life.
“$900,000? He will call into work.”
Cruz’s mother cannot do everything for Bo but she makes a Mama Bear decision when hearing the NBA’s minimum contract number. The ending is not a given though; Hustle holds the suspense throughout. The payoff is worth more than highest priced Netflix subscription option.
“Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams,” Sugarman says. “They have nightmares and eczema.”
That is Stan the Man at his worst. Basketball is Sandler at his best. Hustle and Uncut Gems show Sandler holds basketball on the highest of sporting pedestals. Football is just a brute game worthy of simple storylines and tropey satires. Furthermore, he is no longer the slapdash SNL goofball singing about the Lonesome Kicker in his Piece of Shit Car. He has gone beyond comedy, using basketball to prove he is a truly generational auteur.
Sandler’s vision in Hustle will inspire others to dream, to create, to play, and to coach up others. Perhaps it will even lead to more forgiveness, understanding, and second chances in the world at large. That’s fuckin’ art on the highest level. Hustle on over to Netflix and watch if you haven’t already.