The thrill of an underdog story never really gets old. (Who roots, after all, for the overdogs?) Even the familiarity of it all feels like a balm; to watch films like Creed or Hoosiers or Friday Night Lights hit their well-worn beats time and again — the humble beginnings, the training montage, the third-act showdown — is to know that there is still hope (at least on screen) for the Little Guy. And Hustle, on Netflix June 8, is satisfying in the way the best sports movies are: a scrappy tale of adversity and triumph, smartly told.
Adam Sandler, his beard peppered with flecks of gray and his oversize polo shirts billowing like painters’ tarps, is Stanley Sugerman, a longtime scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose work life is blur of international flights, five-star hotels, and American fast food eaten from a bucket. (If it’s a Tuesday he must be in Belgium, but the KFC remains the same.) Stan loves his job, even though it keeps him away for weeks at a time from his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and teenage daughter (The L Word: Generation Q‘s Jordan Hull). He’s less fond of his new boss, Vince (Ben Foster), a smug rich kid whose recruiting instincts are as scant as his hairline.
And then one night, waylaid in Spain, Stan finds his unicorn at a pickup game. Actually he’s an octopus: a lanky tattooed giant in worn Timberlands — the kid doesn’t even own a proper pair of sneakers — who blocks and dunks so effortlessly, Stanley sees pinwheels. His name, improbably, is Bo Cruz, and he’s played by Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangomez, who has never acted before but turns out to be uniquely charming in a tricky role. Bo is 22, a Barcelona construction worker and single dad who balks at first at Stanley’s sales pitch. He’s never played anything but schoolyard games and street ball; what chance is there for him in the NBA?
Stan, naturally, has enough faith for the both of them — so much so that he’s willing to bring Bo back to Philly and train him on his own dime when Vince imperiously dismisses the idea. (Does it have anything to do with Stan’s own dashed college-ball hopes long ago, and the forked-lightning scar on his hand? Maybe.) What happens from there is both entirely expected but somehow made fresh in the hands of director Jeremiah Zagar, who seems to be playing out his own Cinderella story off-screen (Sandler reportedly brought him on board after becoming a fan of his lauded but little-seen 2018 debut We the Animals).
LeBron James also co-produced the film, and clearly he called in his Rolodex: Screen veterans like Latifah and Robert Duvall appear alongside a murderers’ row of past and present all-stars, from Julius Erving and Doc Rivers to Trae Young and Aaron Gordon (several of them in substantial speaking roles). Will Fetters (A Star Is Born) and Taylor Materne wrote the well-oiled script, though Sandler’s lines, not surprisingly, often seem to flow from him unrehearsed. The actor’s clownish comic persona has been shooting off in more interesting directions for years, in films from Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Love to 2019’s revelatory Uncut Gems, and he turns in a lovely, lived-in performance here as a man who knows he’s running out of chances to leave his mark. (“Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams,” he cracks early on. “They have nightmares and eczema.”)
It helps immeasurably as a viewer, no doubt, to love the game as much as he does; several dozen cameos will probably be wasted on those who wouldn’t know Steph Curry if he was staring at them from a Wheaties box. But the movie doesn’t demand some deep abiding knowledge of the draft system or dribbling violations to work as well as it does. Sandler and Hernangomez have a sweet, goofy chemistry, somewhere between razzing and familial, and the on-court sequences are consistently electric. Hustle isn’t reinventing the sports-story wheel; it’s hardly even spinning it forward. But in the moment, they’re having a ball. Grade: A–