A film review by Craig J. Koban June 22, 2022

HUSTLE jjj
 

2022, R, 117 mins.

Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugarman  /  Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz  /  Robert Duvall as Rex  /  Ben Foster as Vince  /  Queen Latifah as Teresa Sugarman  /  Jordan Hull as Alex Sugerman  /  María Botto as Paola Cruz  /  Heidi Gardner as Kat Merrick  /  Jaleel White as Blake  /  Raúl Castillo as Oscar

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar  /  Written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne

ORIGINAL FILM

Jeremiah Zagar's HUSTLE - a Netflix original film - is an inspirational underdog sports drama that seems, in the early stages, like it's made of many of the cookie cutter ingredients of this well worn genre.  To say that its overall narrative arc is overtly familiar would be an understatement, as the film certainly adheres to many overused troupes.  

Having said that, Zagar and screenwriter Taylor Materne and Will Fetters manage to find a way to subvert said conventions throughout as well, especially in the manner that they use the ROCKY template for inspiration, but then largely tell their tale from the perspective of the coach and not the athlete.  Outside of its refreshing handling of these ageless formulas, HUSTLE represents yet another fine example of Adam Sandler's continued maturation as a highly competent and thoroughly effective dramatic star.  Both this and his last dramatic effort in UNCUT GEMS represents - if you pardon the basketball vernacular - back to back three point shots with nothing but net. 

HUSTLE is, as you might have guessed by now, deeply entrenched in the everyday minutia of pro basketball and the NBA (hardly surprising, seeing as Sandler is - in real life - a die hard fan, which also played into the story of UNCUT GEMS as well).  In the film he plays Stanley, an aging talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers that has spent an arduous amount of time away from his loving wife in Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) over the years travelling the world over to find the next big thing for his team and the NBA.  Even though he feels that he's getting too old and bitter for such globetrotting endeavors, Stanley continues to do so for his passion for the game, not to mention that he has a nurturing mentor/father figure in team owner Rex (Robert Duvall), who has finally awarded Stanley for all of his hard work by given him a highly sought after assistant coaching job with the 76ers.  For Stanley, this is a dream come true and the culmination of all of his dedicated years on the road, but - rather tragically - old man Rex dies on the very day of his promotion, and replacing him is his son Vince (Ben Foster), who has always been combative in many a board room meeting with Stanley, meaning that the latter's chances of staying on as assistant coach are now slim to none, and slim just left town. 

Nevertheless, Stanley still loves basketball and needs to pay the bills, so her returns to be a talent scout for the 76ers, even though he knows - deep down - that the confrontational Vince will never see eye to eye on any of his suggestions for the future.  Stanley is tasked with finding the "missing piece" that will immediately send his team to NBA championship glory, and he thinks he has when he has a very chance meeting with Bo (Juancho Hernangomez), a gargantuan B-baller that hustles other players on street courts.  Bo may be a bit of a hoodlum, but he's undeniably talented, so talented that Stanley thinks that he's got limitless potential as an NBA superstar.  There are a couple of problems with this, though: Firstly, Bo has a criminal record and has serious impulse control problems.  Secondly, he's not even a blip on the NBA scouting radar, meaning that he'll face a massive uphill battle for respect and recognition from anyone in the league.  Thirdly, Vince simply doesn't think this greenhorn player from Spain with no college experience whatsoever will ever make in the big leagues.  Stanley is not phased one bit by any of these massive obstacles, because he knows in his heart and in his mind - based on decades of watching players the world over - that Bo is destined for greatness...but will need a lot of special TLC and guidance to help him move away from his street hustle proclivities and into a bona fide ready-for-prime-time talent. 

 

 

If you've watched any number of underdog sports dramas in your life - especially the aforementioned one with the famous pugilist from (ironically enough) the city of Brotherly Love - then you'll be able to mostly see where HUSTLE is heading in terms of its character beats and story arcs.  This film is definitely made up of many perfunctory beats, to be fair, like the down-on-his-luck, economically impoverished, and struggling for respect and recognition athlete that has to work overtime to become a true champion (in more than one way).  We get multiple training montages featuring the ultra patient coach trying to carve off the many rough patches of his student.  We get many mental and physical obstacles for both men on their mission to secure dominance, like trash talking rivals like Kermit (Anthony Edwards), who's also a highly skilled player that wants to snag a place on an NBA team and will stop at nothing to get into the head of Bo at a moment's notice.  We get insights into Bo's thorny past and how that might spell doom for him in the present to pursue his athletic dreams.  We see the mentor in Stanley sticking by his protégé through thick and thin, giving him multiple inspirational pep talks, wise tutelage, and unorthodox training methods to get him ready to compete.  

On paper, HUSTLE is about as predictable as these types of sports films come. 

Yet, by some sort of million-to-one/Balboa-esque miracle, HUSTLE finds a way to secure its confident footing within its genre trappings and finds its own unique voice and perspective.  As mentioned earlier, so many of these sports films are all told from the prerogative of the player, but HUSTLE mixes that up quite a bit and instead focuses mostly on Stanley and his undying pursuits to make Bo the type of player he knows in his gut that he's capable of being.  Stanley's entire DNA is laced with the inner workings of the game - not to mention a tragic history of his own that completely ruined his own chances of playing in the NBA - so he has a two-tiered motivation when it comes to making Bo ultimately succeed.  He wants to see the young man achieve what he couldn't.  He wants to prove his naysaying boss in Vince that he was categorically wrong about Bo.  Most importantly. Stanley wants to prove to the basketball world as a whole that his intuition when it comes to picking talent is righteous, especially when faced with the scorn of the league and other media personalities that believe that hand picking an unknown from relatively nowhere is a bad idea.  Obviously, Bo has an awful lot to prove here as well, and HUSTLE never forgets his own insecurities and vulnerabilities that sometimes gets the better of him, but the film as a whole finds its dramatic epicenter squarely honed in on Stanley, which makes the film, as stated, an atypically engaging ROCKY-in-reverse experience to watch. 

I've mentioned that 1976 Oscar winning film a lot here, but it's obvious that Zager and company use it for inspiration throughout.  That, and the film's South Philly settings are more than coincidental (which are filmed with an impeccable eye for gritty, ground zero verisimilitude by Zak Mulligan), not to mention that when Bo finally achieves an endurance run challenge (involving a massive flight of stairs) during his training Stanley himself screams Rocky's name in approval for Bo's accomplishment.  It should be noted, however, that HUSTLE isn't simplistically mining elements from ROCKY and substituting in basketball for boxing.  There's considerably more going on here that makes the film elevate itself well above being another run-of-the-mill knock-off.  This is especially true when it comes to the dramatic crescendos that Zagar builds toward, none of which involves a proverbial "big climatic game" where the hero triumphs over others.  We don't really get a big game...or scoreboards...or game clocks...of slow-motion final buzzer beater shots to secure victory.  No, HUSTLE opts for a more compelling finish, in particular for how it lays down the futures for both the coach and player, and in many respects it comes off as more dramatically potent and fulfilling as a result.  That, and it wisely taps into the widely held sports zeitgeist that making it into the NBA - or any pro league - is harder than hard for most. 

I also dug how deeply entrenched this film is in the inner workings of the NBA, which features a real team and many real players playing themselves in cameo form (your enjoyment of the film may or may not depend on your NBA knowledge base for these players), and it helps sell the veracity of the story (the on-court trash talking and off-court insider lingo seems pretty authentic and on point).  Helping sell all of this is the pitch perfect casting of actual Utah Jazz player Hernangomez as Bo here, and no one will even label him as a thespian heavyweight, but he does a thanklessly good job of immersing himself within his character and playing exceptionally well off of Sanlder's prickly coach.  And speaking of Sandler, yeah...we need more of this from the actor.  Over the years we've been given mostly two sides to this performer: The wholly competent dramatic actor of films like SPANGLISH or UNCUT GEMS or the fingernails on chalkboard personality in woefully awful comedies like JACK AND JILL and I KNOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY (as well as far too many to list off here).  HUSTLE might be the finest representation of synergy between the dramatic and comedic elements of Sandler's repertoire.  His Stanley is both a motormouth trash talker with high confidence while also being a cynical edged and deeply neurotic cauldron of nervous pathos who knows that he has to pull out all of the stops to make the NBA stand up and take notice of him and Bo.  Sandler has played smart asses before (his career is built on them), but not with the complex layers on display in HUSTLE, and the film is far better for it as a result as an rousing and crowd pleasing portrait of hoop dreams come true.    

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