Review: Adam Sandler gives Netflix’s appealing basketball drama ‘Hustle’ its flow

Two men talk in a scene from the movie "Hustle."
Juancho Hernangomez, left, and Adam Sandler in the movie “Hustle.”
(Scott Yamano / Netflix)
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The last time I saw Adam Sandler in a movie — forgive me, I missed “Hubie Halloween” — he was sweating, cursing and agitating up a storm in “Uncut Gems.” It wasn’t his first great performance (or his last), but it revealed something about his particular gifts that few of his die-hard fans and equally die-hard detractors had ever fully appreciated.

There’s something great about watching a Sandler character straining to win at all costs, going to extreme lengths and pushing himself and everyone in his orbit to their limits. The critically derided lowbrow comedies with which he’s been too long associated tend to fail not due to offensiveness but laziness; it’s refreshing when a new project genuinely seizes his attention and, by extension, ours.

It also helps when the movie in question has been sculpted with some care, as is the case with the affecting, aptly titled Netflix basketball drama “Hustle.” Directed by Jeremiah Zagar (“We the Animals”) from a script by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, it’s a formulaic but finely textured underdog story set amid the hyper-competitive bustle of the NBA pre-draft circuit.


Sandler is in fine form as Stanley Sugerman, a former athlete-turned-talent scout who spends his days jetting around the world in search of new blood for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s very good at his job and very tired of it, tired of all the flights, hotel rooms and artery-clogging fast-food meals, and also of the time he spends away from his wife (a warm Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull).

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Sandler is a producer on the movie (as is LeBron James), and his involvement here grows out of a basketball obsession that’s well known, especially among fellow New York Knicks fans who’ve seen him courtside at Madison Square Garden.

Bearded, bespectacled and beleaguered-looking, he’s entirely believable as a man with a profound lifelong love for the game, even when the game hasn’t always loved him back. As he sizes up potential acquisitions, shuffles through offices and airports and stares at TV monitors with glazed-over eyes, Stan is a man in need of a reawakening. And he’ll find it one evening in Spain, when he sets eyes on a diamond in the rough named Bo Cruz, a construction worker by day and an astoundingly gifted basketball player by night. But for various reasons, including Bo’s lack of pro experience and Stan’s tough relationship with the 76ers’ spiteful owner, Vince (Ben Foster), it’ll take harder work than expected for these immigrant hoop dreams to come to fruition.

Bo is played, with a touching mix of athletic prowess and newcomer naiveté, by Juancho Hernangómez of the Utah Jazz (and formerly, briefly of the Boston Celtics, presently in the hunt for an NBA title). He’s one of many, many NBA players and alums who’ve been shrewdly enlisted to give “Hustle” a jolt of authenticity and to offset the occasionally rote formulations of the script.

Kenny Smith plays a retired star and close confidant of Stan’s. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley are on hand to provide some (surprisingly simpatico) commentary. Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry and countless other pro ballers step up in the game sequences, which are excitingly shot by Zak Mulligan and edited with propulsive snap and coherence by Tom Costain, Brian Robinson and Keiko Deguchi.


Several of those collaborators are Sandler production regulars, which speaks to Zagar’s skill at putting a personal spin on the generally anonymous aesthetics of the Netflix/Happy Madison enterprise. There’s a sense of grit here, a rough-hewn looseness to the visual construction that works especially well in the early Spain-set scenes, where Stan first sees Bo in action and then meets his mother, Paola (Maria Botto), and young daughter, Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet), who lean heavily on Bo for support. These hard-luck domestic scenes could have rung false or forced, but no one who saw “We the Animals,” Zagar’s scrappily intimate 2018 family drama, will be surprised by how assuredly he handles them here. (Deguchi served as one of that earlier movie’s editors.)

That visual roughness, bolstered by an energetic hip-hop/electronic soundtrack and well-chosen locations (Zagar grew up in Philly), also informs what feels like one of the longer athletic training montages ever filmed — a “Rocky”-esque roundelay of rude awakenings, shooting drills and uphill cardio workouts that itself plays more like a marathon than a sprint.

Even here, you can sense Zagar trying to push past convention, to transform a well-worn sports-movie staple into its own story rather than a shortcut. He’s trying to show us how coaching Bo rejuvenates Stan, igniting bromantic sparks and turning the usual mentor-mentee dramatic formula slyly on its head. But he’s also conveying a sense of the agility and stamina, mental as well as physical, that Bo will need to excel — not just in a game he knows well but also in a country and a system with their own curious codes and obstacles.

Two men play basketball as a crowd watches in the movie "Hustle."
Tobias Harris and Juancho Hernangómez in the movie “Hustle.”
(Scott Yamano / Netflix)

To that end, Bo is given a persistent nemesis named Kermit Wilts (played by Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards), who gets into his head early and refuses to get out. Good as Edwards is, I wish that “Hustle” didn’t trade so easily in stock villains (Foster plays another, not for the first time) and other familiar beats, Bo’s and Stan’s respective tragic backstories included.

These narrative fallbacks coexist uneasily with the script’s occasional glances in the direction of inside-sports dramas like “Jerry Maguire,” “Moneyball” and especially “High Flying Bird,” which memorably turned a basketball draft story into a glassily cerebral anti-capitalist parable.


“Hustle” grants us a warmer-hearted, softer-headed peek inside the corridors of NBA power, and even here the tensions are wired along family-drama lines. (Robert Duvall appears as the 76ers’ much-venerated previous owner, who is Vince’s father but sees Stan as his truer heir.)

Its interest in the injustices and compromises of the sports world run secondary, in the end, to its greater priority, which is to find a place for a star in a game he loves.

I’m talking, of course, about Sandler, whose hustle is all the more persuasive here for its low-key restraint. He’s seldom worked harder, or more winningly, for an audience’s pleasure.


Rating: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: In general release; starts streaming June 8 on Netflix