Hustle review – Adam Sandler brings his A-game to Netflix’s glorified NBA advert
Here is an underdog sports movie with the longest training montage I think I have ever seen – it pretty much had an interval. Hustle is co-produced by its star Adam Sandler and real-life basketball legend LeBron James, whose presence has essentially licensed a huge roster of real-life cameos from basketball stars, players and coaches, who are namechecked in the closing credits. The whole thing looks a bit like a corporate promo for the NBA, and certainly does not admit of anything unwholesome in the world of pro basketball.
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Admittedly, Sandler sells it hard. He plays Stanley Sugarman, a talent scout working for the Philadelphia 76ers: a harassed, overweight guy joylessly jetting the world looking for the next big thing, occasionally calling his smily, supportive wife, Teresa, from his hotel room (this is a truly thankless role for Queen Latifah). The team’s owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) has a real regard for Stanley’s old-school passion for the game, as opposed to the stat-heads and moneyballers who now predominate, and Rex has promised Stanley a promotion to the coaching job he dreams of. The problem is that Rex’s nasty son and heir, Vince (Ben Foster), winds up calling the shots – he doesn’t like Stanley and sends him back on the road with the promise that if he really can bring in some dynamite talent, he might just let him coach.
Stanley, while wearily sorting through some no-hopers in Spain, is struck by a bolt of metaphorical basketball-related lightning. He sees a tough, scrappy kid called Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) on a street-corner court, hustling other kids for money and winning very easily. Hustle calls to hustle, and fiercely desperate Stanley sees a spark in Bo, who could be his ticket to the big time, and persuades the kid to come back with him to the US.
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This is a glossy piece of Netflix content, but it relies very heavily on NBA fan buy-in for the drama fully to work; there is a continuous series of recognition jolts provided by the stars and legends playing themselves. This is partisan basketball devotion: Stanley even says a couple of times how he “hates soccer” – even after Bo’s Spanish mum has made it clear to him that the word is “football”. Sandler has shown in the Safdie brothers’ gambling movie Uncut Gems that he can project neediness and desperation, but Hustle doesn’t quite deliver the same cold-sweat fear of loss and shame, instead there’s a feelgood bedrock that the film can’t and won’t jackhammer through. It’s the sort of film custom-made for the fans. For everyone else it would pass the time as an airline movie on a long-haul flight.
• Hustle is released on 8 June on Netflix.