Hustle (2022) ****

Never thought I’d be praising the acting of Adam Sandler –  or lasting to the end of a Netflix movie (yep that includes The Irishman). Except that this effort which appeared to be very off-message for the sports genre suddenly veered back on course towards the finishing line I thought it had the makings of a genuine five-star movie, almost the prequel to all those Kevin Costner-type picture where the washed-up sports star/coach ends up working with a team from Nowheresville.

For a long time the movie’s tension derives from it looking as if the career of wannabe basketball star Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) is going south before it has even begun, partly from self-inflicted issues and partly from the shenanigans of the all-powerful,  and in so doing exposes the rough and dirty underbelly of basketball.

Scout Stan Sugarman (Adam Sandler) achieves his lifetime ambition of being promoted by ageing owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) to assistant coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. But Merrick’s sudden death sends Stanley back on the road where he discovers hustler Bo playing in an ordinary outdoor court. Having incurred the enmity of Vince (Ben Foster), Rex’s son and new team boss, and with Bo being denied a contract, Stan quits and tries to get Bo accepted into the national trials (known, for the uninitiated, as the Combine Draft).

But Bo, who has a conviction for assault, blows his chance, loses his potential breakthrough spot and except for Stan’s herculean efforts would be on a fast track back to Nowheresville. Which would have been an interesting picture in itself, there being far more losers in sport than winners, and always room in some lower league for a washed-up coach.

Sure, there’s the usual unusual training regime (this is the home of Rocky after all), and plenty one-to-one scrimmaging and amazing shots, but mostly it moves at a slower pace, a character study more than anything, as Stan learns to mentor his pupil and his pupil learns to cope with mental pressures. Opportunities to widen the picture’s scope – a potential romance with Stan’s daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) or crisis in the Sugarman home – are ignored in favour of a sharper character focus.

I’m no fan of basketball, never watched a game, couldn’t name a single player unless they starred in an animated feature, and yet I was fascinated by the way the game was played, the ins-and-outs of on-field play. Having watched it, I wouldn’t say I was any more educated, couldn’t even tell you how many people were in a team or even how long as game lasted, but for sure it kept my interest.

There’s contrasting use of social media – one that triggers the young man’s downfall, another that prompts his comeback. But in the main, especially if like me you are unfamiliar with the game, you are mostly gripped by the tension, the consequences of failure for Stan far greater than failure for Bo, and the eventuality that there is no way this can work out. And in that respect it’s not like Rocky or Any Given Sunday where the steps to success are more readily pinpointed.

Like Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems, 2109) is entering potentially the “last leg” of his career. He’s lost the annoying nasal whine and the manic comedic energy and transitioned the loser persona into a more recognisable human being. Denied the need to strive for laughs, his delivery is more conversational and realistic. Juancho Hernangomez, a basketball player, making his acting debut, sensibly restrains himself. Queen Latifah (The Tiger Rising, 2022) has also stepped away from comedy although she enjoys some good riffs with Sandler. Jordan Hull (The L Word: Generation Q, 2019-2020)  also makes her movie debut. Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, 2016) plays the mean boss. SNL graduate Heidi Gardner is another stepping out of her comfort zone.

There are some anomalies, most notable being that Sandler seems a few inches short of being a former basketball player. Also, you would have to imagine that a young man who came from a tough background and hustled for a living was unlikely to be deterred by a few insults coming his way and equally unlikely to throw away so much food. And also, I never knew the basketball find actually came from Spain, the location work confusing to say the least, I thought he just spoke Spanish, hardly a rare language in America. And who is this guy called “Himself” who appeared to be played by over a dozen people?

Jeremiah Zagers (We The Animals, 2018) does an excellent job or reining in Sandler and the fact that the ending turns this into a warm-hearted drama does not lessen the fact that for most of the time it felt like anything but is testament to his skill.

Available on Netflix.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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