As its closing credits make abundantly clear, there are a lot of basketball people in the new film Hustle (on Netflix now): current players, past legends, coaches, sportscasters, managers, and probably a few other industry types playing themselves or slightly fictionalized figures. The co-star of the film is Spanish NBA player Juancho Hernangómez, following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and others who have stepped off the court for a moment of movie stardom.
All these men are there to honor the game they (hopefully) love. But I suspect they might also be involved so they can spend a little time with the Sand-man, Adam Sandler. In Hustle, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, Sandler does his once surprising, now familiar shaggy nice-guy thing—his somehow animated mutter running at a modest speed as Stanley Sugerman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who dreams of coaching. Stanley, of course, has a haunted past: a foolish and disastrous mistake ended his college basketball career, haloing his otherwise happy life with a glimmer of sadness.
That’s prime territory for Sandler these days, who has over the years calmed his antic SNL blare into thoughtful world-weariness. It can be thrilling to see him amp himself up again, as he did in the breakneck Uncut Gems (which also featured basketball stars), but it is also a pleasure to watch him give in to the rumple of middle-age. He wears that shuffling decency well, giving off an approachable warmth that has, time and time again, drawn other talent toward him.
There is usually a disarming bonhomie to Sandler movies—even amid the desperate maneuvering of Uncut Gems, an insistently affable air kept us engaged. I’d imagine that’s an enjoyable vibe to play around in, feeling like you’ve been invited into the friendly hang of a movie. Thus, perhaps, we have Queen Latifah as Teresa, Stanley’s supportive former track star wife. It’s a rare treat these days to see Latifah in a movie (you can see her on TV on The Equalizer); perhaps we have Sandler to thank for this welcome, if brief, return. I’d gladly watch the pair in another project together.
The main chemistry of the movie, though, is between Sandler and Hernangómez, the latter playing Bo, a protege plucked out of obscurity in Spain. He lives a hardscrabble life with his mother and his young daughter, and while the brass at the Sixers (most notably Ben Foster’s bratty scion Vince) don’t approve, Stanley sees great potential in this hulking, elborately tattooed kid with a troubled past. Stanley brings Bo to the States to shoot his shot, and so begins the grinding of the film, training montages running up against the drama of personal demons.
Because this is a later-career Sandler movie, though, the grind is not quite as grinding as it might be elsewhere. Hustle moves airily along—the expected setbacks are encountered, but they’re weathered with humble grace and then gently moved past. Hernangómez is not (yet?) the most expressive actor, but he reacts well enough to whatever Sandler throws at him. Sandler is very much in his wheelhouse: occasionally a little locker-room-talk profane, but returning always to a goodness, a compassion, that keeps the film inviting.
Zagar broke out at Sundance a few years ago with We the Animals, a woozy and slightly overwrought family drama. Hustle is a decidedly more mainstream film than that, but Zagar effectively applies some of his indie tricks to this soft-bro streaming material. His Animals cinematographer Zak Mulligan goes for a similarly hazy palette here, somewhere between verité and pleasant dream. Dan Deacon’s score has appropriately rousing moments, though nothing so crass (or old-fashioned) as big dramatic swells. Hustle, despite the flashy implications of its title, is a soft-spoken film, a convivial ramble that trots after two men as they work toward a mutual dream.
This is a good space for Sandler, a rich vein to keep mining. Though Uncut Gems ultimately proved too alienating—too violent? Too lurid? Too frenetic?—for the Academy, it helped stoke a dormant desire in many of us to see Sandler achieve the kind of awards glory we maybe never thought the waterboy from The Waterboy could. Hustle doesn’t feel like it’s that kind of play, but it could be an apt precursor to something that is: some other movie where Sandler triumphs in his own messy-sweet way, helping himself, and others, shed their shabby baggage.
It’s funny to see the logo for Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, play before a movie like Hustle. All the brash silliness of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison feels so far away at this point. We are firmly ensconced in a different Sandler era, in which the agreeable clown, now 55, is looking for a little meaning in his own once-mad success story.