Hustle (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A low-key sports drama starring Adam Sandler (No Kidding)

As many of you know, Adam Sandler is actually a good actor who can be quite serious and compelling whenever he gets a chance for that. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), he got the first opportunity for fully demonstrating the edgy sides of his usual comic persona, so it is a shame that he has not explored this potentially rich area of his acting talented that much as appearing in a bunch of disposable comedy films such as, yes, “Jack and Jill” (2011).

Nevertheless, as recently shown in the Safdie brother’s “Uncut Gems” (2019), Sandler has lost none of his acting talent yet, and his latest Netflix film “Hustle” confirms that again to us. In contrast to his previous Netflix films which are pretty ludicrous to say the least, the movie is much more serious as your average sports drama, and, to my little surprise, Sandler humbly holds the ground via as dialing down his comic intensity as required.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, who was once a promising basketball player but, after one very unfortunate incident, has worked as an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in US. As shown from the opening scene, Sugerman often travels to here and there in Europe for finding basketball players good enough for recruitment, and we get some amusement as he wearily checks on a number of various candidates one by one.

Because of his busy work outside US, Sugerman cannot be around his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and their adolescent daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) that often, but both Teresa and Alex have accepted his frequent absence while fully supporting how he earns their living day by day. In case of his workplace, he is always trusted by Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall, who is still reliable although he had the 91st birthday several months ago), the owner of the 76ers, and a brief private moment between him and Sugerman conveys to us many years of trust and respect between them.

However, Merrick suddenly dies not long after promoting Sugerman to a new assistant coach of the 76ers, and his position is soon filled by his cocky son Vince (Ben Foster, who is rather under-utilized despite his usual intense presence). Because Vance has no respect for Sugerman’s wisdom and experience at all, Sugerman soon finding himself back in his good old scout business as demanded by Vince, and he certainly feels miserable as musing on whether he should accept a certain good offer from a good friend of his.

And then there comes an unexpected chance for him. When he is in Spain for checking on several local candidates, Sugerman happens to spot a tall young man doing some basketball hustle outside, and he instinctively senses the considerable potential from this lad. Although their first encounter is not exactly pleasant, it does not take much time for Sugarman to get the attention of this lad. As an economically struggling young single dad, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) is quite willing to reach to an opportunity for earning much more money for his mother and his little daughter, and he soon goes to Philadelphia along with Sugarman.

Of course, Sugerman and Cruz come to face a number of obstacles in front of them as soon as they arrive in Philadelphia. While Vince is not so pleased about Sugerman not following his decision on Cruz, Cruz turns out to have a little problem behind his back, and, above all, his road to NBA draft turns out to be much more challenging mainly due to some other basketball player eager to crush him on the field by any means necessary.

What follows next is a series of training sequences where Sugerman pushes Cruz harder for their big moment to come, and director Jeremiah Zagar, who previously drew my attention for his debut film “We the Animals” (2018), and his editors Tom Costain, Brian Robinson, and Keiko Deguchi skillfully handle these conventional moments with enough energy and intensity. In addition, they also bring considerable verisimilitude to several key basketball play scenes in the film, and it surely helps that Juancho Hernangómez is actually a NBA basketball player in real life.

Sandler’s seasoned professional acting and Hernangómez’s earnest non-professional performance make an effectively contrasting duo throughout the film, and they are also surrounded by a number of recognizable real-life figures popping up around here and there (I am sure some of you know more about them than me). Although she seems to be limited by her rather thankless supporting role, Queen Latifah brings more to her part than expected, and Jordan Hull holds her own small place well between Sandler and Latifah.

On the whole, “Hustle” mostly stays in its genre conventions, but Zagar and his cast and crew members did a commendable job of bringing enough realism and spirit into the familiar narrative of the film, and the result is one of the better films in Sandler’s filmography. Although his work here in this movie is not something as electrifying as his utterly uncompromising performance in “Uncut Gems”, I enjoyed how his humble performance diligently carries the film without overshadowing his fellow cast members, and that is certainly worthwhile to observe and appreciate.

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