ABOVE PHOTO: This image released by Netflix shows Queen Latifah, seated from left, and Adam Sandler in a scene from “Hustle.” (Scott Yamano/Netflix via AP)
By Jake Coyle
By now you’d think you know what you’re getting with an Adam Sandler sports movie. “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” have conditioned us to expect silly voices and left hooks from irritated game show hosts.
But in “Hustle,” Sandler’s new basketball movie on Netflix, he pulls a crossover. The film, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, isn’t the farce you might expect. Rather, it’s one of the most textured and affectionate films about basketball that’s come along in a long time. Starring Sandler as a road-weary NBA scout and with several teams’ worth of all-stars in cameos, “Hustle” has a surprisingly good handle and feel for the game.
A longtime Knicks fan and pick-up player, it’s probably inevitable that Sandler would eventually find his way to a hoops movie. “Uncut Gems,” one of his most recent leading roles, as a gambling-addicted jeweler with a big bet on a Boston Celtics game, veered closer to the sport and co-starred Kevin Garnett. The LeBron James-produced “Hustle,” which debuts Friday, isn’t as distinctive or (thankfully) as stress-inducing as Josh and Benny Safdie’s film, but it’s likewise rich in atmosphere and finds Sandler in fine dramatic form.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who spends his days circling the globe looking for the next Dirk Nowitzki. Life on the road has beaten him down — his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) are accustomed to his absences — and Stanley harbors dreams of transitioning to the coaching ranks. Or not dreams, exactly.
“Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams,” he says. “They have nightmares and eczema.”
Stanley’s opportunity finally comes when the team’s longtime owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), promotes him to assistant coach. But after Merrick dies, the team is taken over by the owner’s brash son Vince (Ben Foster), who has feuded before with Stanley over the potential of a German prospect. Vince puts Stanley back on the road. “You’re valuable as a coach,” he tells him. “You’re indispensable as a scout.”
Back on the road, Stanley is in Spain when he notices a crowd gathering outside a gym, on the blacktop. There he sees a construction worker named Bo Cruz (played by NBAer Juancho Hernangómez) whose talent is off the charts, even playing in Timberlands. Stanley, agog Bo’s defensive and shooting prowess, trails Bo to his home to recruit him to the Sixers. After a fallout with Vince, Stanley devotes himself to getting Bo into the NBA draft. Along the way, Sandler gets to put his own spin on that fabled sports movie type, the hard-training coach. “Hustle” doesn’t veer wildly from the “Rocky” formula, but it does capture something fresh about the bond between player and coach. It’s also a clever twist that Bo’s greatest talent is his defense, and his biggest hurdle to success is keeping his cool.
All of this plays out in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ script with a keen sense of detail that will delight NBA fans. There is even a reference to a woebegone Andrea Bargnani trade that will make Knicks fans chuckle (and cringe). The cameos keep coming, including most of the current Sixers roster, Allen Iverson, Boban Marjanović, Luka Dokic, Trae Young and some more fleshed-out characters, like Bo’s rival draft pick Kermit Wilts, played charismatically by Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards.
With each appearance, the distance between “Hustle” and the actual NBA grows increasingly small. Stanley’s great fear is being left outside “the game,” and “Hustle” is often intoxicatingly close to it. This is a movie where you get to see Sandler call Nowitzki “Schnitzel” on FaceTime and marvel at Julius “Dr. J” Erving (a still extremely potent presence) showing up to a playground court.
Some might say “Hustle” verges close to NBA advertisement, but Zagar, a South Philly native who emerged with the 2018 indie “We the Animals,” frames the pros who populate his film like people and players, rather than stars. And Sandler imbues Sugarman with not just genuine basketball obsession but the common mid-life struggle of finding only ingratitude from an employer after half a life of tireless service. After some less strenuous workouts for Netflix, Sandler works hard to give “Hustle” the full-court press — even if his wardrobe of jerseys and mesh shorts might have come right out of his closet.
Sandler’s film would make a solid double-header with another Netflix film, Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird,” the -penned 2019 drama with Andre Holland as a sports agent hustling during an NBA lockout. “Hustle” is a more amiable film, less interested in prying into the underpinnings of the league. But for a sport that has only occasionally been captured authentically by the movies, “Hustle” has genuine flow.
“Hustle,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language. Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.