Little new ground is broken in Hustle, the latest Netflix film starring Adam Sandler as an obsessive NBA scout who aspires to coach. All the sports movie cliches are hit well enough but with little fanfare. Undermining the compelling premise is a weak script and sometimes sophomoric humor that get in the way of what otherwise could have served as a fine ode to the game and history of basketball.
Sandler, in a “serious” role, plays Stanley Sugarman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Fueled by a constant stream of fast food, he travels the world in search of talent. A former college star who suffered a career-ending injury, he dreams of getting back on the sidelines as a member of the team’s coaching staff. He also wants to spend more time with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and their daughter Alex (Jordan Hull).
A loyal band of friends and colleagues believe in Stanley’s ability, including the team’s owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). But Stanley soon faces the ultimate test: in order to earn a place on the coaching staff, he must find a player that will help the 76ers win. One night, while in Spain, he stumbles upon a young man wearing work boots and tearing up the competition in a pick-up game. Seeing the talent immediately, he corners the 22-year-old Bo Cruz, played by current NBA player Juancho Hernangómez, and convinces him to fly to Philadelphia and showcase his skills in the lead-up to the NBA Draft.
What follows in Hustle is the standard sports underdog story: Bo and Stanley face a series of obstacles. Few believe in them. Stanley trains and pushes Bo to be the best player he can be. Bo finds a rival and wrestles with his own inner demons as he fights for his spot in the NBA. And, naturally, Bo gets a shot to prove his skills in the game of his life.
A welcome surprise comes in the form of Kenny Smith. The former NBA point guard and current broadcaster delivers a solid performance as Leon Rich, a hotshot NBA agent who’s also a friend and former teammate of Stanley’s. The circumstances of their bond is compelling, yet something we learn too late. Such intriguing yet underdeveloped backstories are a constant for the film.
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, Hustle fits well into the tradition of basketball movies that pay homage to the players and films of years past. The film features a number of “as himself” characters, including 76er legends like Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, and Allen Iverson, who briefly reenacts his famous “practice” press conference. NBA icon Julius Erving, who starred in another basketball movie classic, 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, has a key cameo in the film. These appearances, plus a host of cameos from current NBA stars like Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, and Luka Dončić, will leave NBA fans of all ages with a smile on their face.
The filmmakers’ respect and love for the game of basketball comes through in play coverage too. Some of Hustle‘s best scenes feature montages of players scrimmaging. They leap through the air, block shots, and swish threes. Their work showcases the kind of speed, movement, and agility that the movie camera so finely captures.
Perhaps unfairly, Sandler’s performance as another basketball-obsessive in Uncut Gems will undoubtedly be at the front of many viewers’ minds. Leave that behind when you hit play on Hustle. Sandler as Stanley is at his best when he is at his most sincere; when he talks about his love for the game, for coaching, and his family. It’s when the script feeds him one liners and unnecessary self-deprecation (fat jokes? really?) that the character veers off into caricature.
The best basketball films often go beyond the physical play. They reveal something about the circumstances of the game, like the exploitation of young athletes in Spike Lee’s He Got Game (1998) or the corrupt nature of the college recruitment process in William Friedkin’s Blue Chips (1994). No such elevation exists in Hustle. For example, in one nearly-interesting moment, Stanley speaks with NBA great and German-born Dirk Nowitzki who helps convince Bo to trust Stanley. But rather than get into the dynamics of international basketball, the recruitment process, or the experience of non-American players, the film just makes some bad jokes and moves on.
Similarly, the title of the film comes from Bo’s time on the public basketball courts of Spain. By wearing his work boots and leaning into his quiet, gentle nature, he out-skills other players who wrongly assume they can make a quick buck. Once he travels to Philadelphia, however, the hustle ends. The closest he gets? Ordering $9 sleeves of Pringles from room service. In the role of Bo, Hernangómez does well with what little he is given. The better moments come when we see the love he has for his young daughter orr during a serious conversation about life with his mother, Paola (María Botto). But these exchanges are fleeting and ultimately feel flat.
Hernangómez is at his best when given the chance to show-off his athletic ability. When he chases down defenders and pulls up for a corner three. As a showcase and celebration of basketball talent, the film delivers. But good movies must be more than just an ESPN highlight reel. By the film’s end, audiences will be left wanting to feel and know a whole lot more about the people with whom they have just spent two hours.
Hustle debuts in select theaters on June 3 and on Netflix from June 8.