It’s pretty common knowledge that Netflix has a two-good-films-to-be-distributed-annually quota. Luckily for them, I think they have just one more to promote this year after Hustle.
When football was on hold during 2020's lockdown, I tried getting into basketball to while away time, opting to support the Boston Celtics (a decision not backed by any on-court related factors, but in fact by a certain Adam Sandler). I got tired of it after the first two days and resorted to checking the scores after games. Here is where Hustle, Netflix's latest Adam Sandler project, works its sly magic; if its abundance of basketball sequences and jargon (including a remarkable 8-minute training montage) manages to capture the attention of a non-basketball lover like me, you can only wonder what it would do to genuine NBA heads.
I have maintained that sports films, more often than not, have a slight edge in the entertainment aspect of filmmaking. If you're paying for a movie, why not pick one that allows you to enjoy your favorite sport as part of the bargain? Although the basketball in Hustle might dare to outshine its cinematic qualities, Adam Sandler’s charm makes him just barely able to stand out amongst the distracting host of NBA star appearances.
Juancho Hernangomez, in his acting debut, gives his best watered-down impression of Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, with Adam Sandler of course playing Stallone in this story of trust, friendship, and family. Hustle has a feel-good vibe to it, as do many films of its kind, and watching the fairytale trajectory unfold, you rest assured that any anticlimactic moment is a mere stumbling block to what lies ahead. It will come across as cliché and predictable, but that’s all it really needs to be.
Hustle will rightly be labeled a love letter to basketball and the city of Philadelphia, further exemplifying Sandler’s love for the sport (and apparent emphatic aversion to "soccer," too). Love letters are written with rose-colored glasses on, so expecting a tragic sucker-punch ending twist à la Ford v Ferrari (2019) – which, it goes without saying, was based on true events – would simply be clutching at non-existent straws.
As cliché as the premise is, Sandler’s performance is not. The trailer for Hustle was promising, but it barely told the half of it. Sandler doesn’t try to be funny, and when he does try to, it’s so dad joke-y that you're compelled to crack a smile, which, ten out of ten times, is better than a sigh.
The day-job comedian punches above his weight as Stanley Sugerman, an uninspired Philadelphia 76ers scout trying to discover the next big thing in basketball. He really does sell it; believe the hype. Full credits to director Jeremiah Zagar for pulling off the Baumbach-Safdie effect on the actor. And oh, there’s a delectable long-running chemistry between Sandler and Queen Latifah that you don't want to miss.
Another commendable plus from the director's sophomore feature is Minnesota Timberwolves’ shooting guard, Anthony Edwards. Before Edwards, it was Kevin Garnett facing off against Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems just three years ago – rather big shoes to fill. But the 20-year-old really does find his feet amongst other basketball stars, on the pitch and on the screen. Should the basketballer choose to dive further into Hollywood, his trash-talking antagonist role definitely does him more good than bad.
Hustle might be a formulaic sports film with a tad more basketball and "tiddies" than Oscar-worthy elements, and Adam Sandler gambling on young talents might not be as fun and profanely thrilling as on money and his life. Overall, however, the Netflix film really makes for a great way to pass the time.