CAST: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Robert Duvall, Juancho Hernangómez, Jordan Hull, Heidi Gardner, María Botto, Ainhoa Pillet, Kenny Smith, Silas Graham, Lenjo Kilo, Marcus Delpeche, Malcolm Delpeche
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
BASICALLY…: A washed-up basketball scout (Sandler) discovers a promising talent in Spain…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Could it possibly be true: has Adam Sandler finally, truly grown the hell up? Yes, we’ve all known for years that the king of man-child “comedies” from Little Nicky to Jack and Jill is also very capable as a dramatic actor (watch either Punch-Drunk Love or Uncut Gems as certified proof of this), but until now those more mature projects have been the works of filmmakers outside Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison Productions. A cavalcade of overgrown stupidity, Happy Madison has birthed numerous projects over the years that have given Sandler and his on-screen buddies several opportunities to act as immature and obnoxiously unfunny as possible, so seeing their logo in front of Hustle does admittedly strike some fear into the heart and soul.
But then, something miraculous happens: the film that immediately follows that instantly-recognisable Happy Madison logo is, by far and away, the most mature thing they’ve ever done. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s actually, against all odds, mostly rather good. It’s nothing that’s going to change the realm of filmmaking as we know it, but it may as well be The Godfather next to something like Paul Blart: Mall Cop or The Wrong Missy.
In Hustle, directed by Jeremiah Zagar of well-received indie We the Animals, Sandler stars as Stanley Sugarman, an NBA scout whose job is to travel the globe in search of formidable basketball players to bring into the league. Having grown weary of his job, Stanley is keen to settle with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah, slightly underused) and their daughter Alex (Jordan Hull), but continues to be sent abroad by the new owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, Vince Merrick (Ben Foster). Whilst in Spain, Stanley comes across a game of street basketball where one player, Bo Cruz (played by actual NBA professional player Juancho Hernangómez), stands out with true, raw talent; all of which is enough to convince Stanley to bring him to the States to try out for the NBA via an upcoming Draft Combine, and possibly revive his flatlining career.
The weird thing about this movie is that, despite containing zero of the immature humour that has come to define it, you can still kind of tell that it is a Happy Madison production. Beyond Sandler’s participation, the movie features many existing archetypes from the pure-evil bullies to the playful banter that teeters on the edge of crudeness. Not to mention, much like a typical Happy Madison movie, it features endless cameos from real-life NBA players and figures (yes, even Sandler regular Shaquille O’Neal makes a brief appearance), and even some of Sandler’s fellow SNL alumni pop up in small roles such as current cast member Heidi Gardner. However, the fundamental difference between Hustle and, say, Grown Ups 2 is that there is actual earnestness to the proceedings. Everything here is played completely straight (as it should be, seeing how it is first and foremost a drama instead of a comedy), with the humorous moments being just those and nothing further exaggerated, while the less pleasant ways of life that were once celebrated in Happy Madison films like Just Go With It are now treated as real issues that come to define a character’s low status. Because of that, it feels so much more relatable and even human, enough to where it actually can get away with a few laughs at other people’s expense, since by that point it’s been well and truly earned.
This also happens to be the second Happy Madison film in a row this year, after Home Team, that revolves exclusively around the typical sports movie dynamic, but whereas the Kevin James vehicle fell flat on its face by sticking to the typical company formula (gross-out vomit gags and Rob Schneider among them), Hustle really does go out of its way to tell this intriguing story with genuinely compelling characters in the most honest, natural and – most importantly – passionate way possible. Jeremiah Zagar’s direction allows the basketball scenes to carry a weight to them through an invigorating camera style that pushes the action up close without getting too in-your-face about it. The writing, though certainly predictable for this kind of movie, contains some strong dialogue that is funny when it needs to be, but is also incredibly sincere with some good character moments that heighten the drama neatly. Most of all, though, it’s down to the performances, particularly that of Sandler himself, which give the movie its true dedication. A long-time NBA fan (to a point where Hustle is also co-produced by none other than LeBron James), Sandler’s dedication here is just as strong as in Uncut Gems, with the actor delivering a truly passionate performance that encapsulates everything good about him when he’s not concentrating on juvenile humour of any kind. He has good on-screen chemistry with Juancho Hernangómez, who makes a rather good acting debut here, and you really buy their likeable connection as it continues to blossom throughout the movie, with the NBA player also proving himself to at times be just as funny and charming as his more experienced co-star.
It’s certainly a prototypical sports movie, containing many of the familiar conventions and twists one would normally expect in this kind of film, but Hustle gets away with most of it because its passion for the material is clear, and Sandler refuses to let any of his or his studio’s trademark delinquency get in the way of just telling a good old-fashioned story like this. Something like this goes to show how much Sandler and Happy Madison can genuinely do great things so long as they remember to act their age, and while I’d stop short of calling Hustle truly great – again, it does follow a specific path that is well-trodden by this point – it’s an admirable, entertaining, and downright enjoyable film that does well to reach out with as much passion as possible. Again, though, for the studio that also made Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, That’s My Boy and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, it might as well be a cinematic masterpiece.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Hustle is an admirable and entertaining sports drama which overcomes its familiar structure with a sense of genuine energetic passion, brought about by director Jeremiah Zagar’s electric direction and, most notably of all, Adam Sandler’s strong lead performance which goes along with how this Happy Madison production continuously defies the odds and actually tries to be a proper movie instead of a juvenile grind.