There’s a certain type of movie you could swear you’ve seen a million times before, one that hits so many familiar beats you can pretty much predict the next one, and the one after that. The basketball drama Hustle, starring Adam Sandler as a longtime scout who stakes his future on a promising young player from Spain, is that kind of movie. Yet somehow director Jeremiah Zagar and his actors—among them Queen Latifah and pro basketball player Juancho Hernangómez, making his movie debut—manage to inflict a kind of magical amnesia, making you forget you’ve already seen it all just before they show it to you all over again. Hustle works its smooth moves scene after scene and ends with a satisfying whoosh, something like the sound of a ball sweeping through the net after circling the hoop for a suspenseful second or two.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, whose job is to scout talent for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s been at it a long time and he’s tired of the endless travel, which takes him away from his wife, Teresa (Latifah), and teenage daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull), for long stretches. He’s thrilled when his longtime boss Rex (Robert Duvall), the team’s owner, promotes him to assistant coach. But his elation doesn’t last long. Rex dies suddenly, and his egotistical and resentful son, Vince (Ben Foster), takes over the team’s ownership, putting Stanley right back into his old job. Frustrated but with no real recourse, Stanley goes on the road again, looking to fill Vince’s directive to find that one invaluable key player. Stopping to watch a game of street basketball in Mallorca, Spain, he strikes what he’s sure is gold when he spots a lanky, brawny, tattooed kid who’s killing it on the court, light on his feet even in the work boots he wears instead of sneakers.
This wunderkind’s name is Bo Cruz (played by Hernangómez), and he lives with his mother and young daughter (Mariá Botto and Ainhoa Pillet), supporting them by doing construction work. It takes a while for Stanley to persuade Bo to come back to the States for a shot at playing with the 76ers—Bo is certain, at first, that Stanley is a stalker weirdo. Only after Stanley manages to seal the deal does he get bad news from his boss: Vince doesn’t like the look of the kid and wants Stanley to keep searching.
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Defying orders, Stanley brings Bo back to Philly anyway, putting him up in a hotel at his own expense. The rest of Hustle is part aspirational parable, part tale of middle-aged triumph, part nail-biter. It turns out Bo has a secret that could jeopardize his shot at playing pro basketball. And he makes a bad impression on the court when an aggressive opponent, Kermit Wilts (played by Anthony Edwards, of the Minnesota Timberwolves), taunts him during a match. Stanley begins to think he’ll never get away from scouting. As he tells Teresa after she tries to offer some words of encouragement, “Guys in their fifties don’t have dreams. They have nightmares—and eczema.”
Hustle is a passion project for Sandler, an avid basketball fan. (He and LeBron James are two of the film’s producers, and it features lots of cameos from pro basketball legends and current players like Julius Erving, Trae Young and Jordan Clarkson.) Zagar, director of the beautifully observed 2018 coming-of-age drama We the Animals—and a native of South Philly himself—shapes this story with a great deal of vitality and feeling. Some of the camera work is gratuitously jiggly; it’s not clear why we need so many blurry, angled closeups of Stanley’s graying beard. But the basketball scenes have a cool, clean energy, and Zagar draws subtly wrought performances even from his rookie actors. Hernangómez, towering mightily over Sandler and just about everyone else, has a loping, Brobdingnagian charm. It’s easy to believe him as a young man who’s both a passionate, ambitious athlete and a perceptive father who’d do anything for his kid.
And while Sandler has given some fine dramatic, as opposed to comic, performances in recent years—most notably as an awkward son living in the shadow of his successful sculptor father in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—he seems to be getting even better as he ages. As Stanley, he coasts breezily on a neurotic, self-deprecating cloud—this is a guy who, as the movie opens, is almost too comfortable with his lack of his success. Watching him learn to fight for what he wants is one of the movie’s quiet pleasures.
It’s especially fun to watch Sandler in his scenes with Latifah. Casting these two as husband and wife was an inspired move: Her radiance and warmth provide a kind of force field for him to push against, and to lean into. Latifah is one of those performers who improves every project she appears in. Ideally, she should be in every movie, but we’ll take what we can get. Hustle, predictable as it may be, motors along efficiently, driven largely by its generosity of spirit. It’s a jump shot that pays off.