When looking back at the career of Adam Sandler, it is hard to think of a more varied and unconventional run for an actor of his unique disposition. First getting his big break on Saturday Night Live, he would ultimately get fired from the show and go on to star in a whole host of hit '90s comedy vehicles. From Billy Madison to The Waterboy, he carved out a presence as a beloved comedy actor who always drew a crowd regardless of a mixed critical response. Outside of that, he has taken on a handful of more serious roles that let his acting chops shine through. Be it in Paul Thomas Anderson's sublime Punch-Drunk Love, Noah Baumbach's melancholic The Meyerowitz Stories, or the Safdie brothers' stressful Uncut Gems, Sandler's performances can sneak up on us when we least expect them to.
All of this brings us to his newest film, Hustle, which finds Sandler in an intriguing middle ground, drawing from both his comedic sensibilities and dramatic aspirations. In one of the better straight-to-Netflix productions, Sandler plays a down-on-his-luck basketball scout, Stanley Sugarman, who still has a passionate spark. A former player himself whose career was derailed by an injury, he now spends most of his days traveling around the globe to scope out new talent for the Philadelphia 76ers, whose management undervalues him.
This lonely life is taking a toll on him as he both misses his family (anchored by an underutilized Queen Latifah as Teresa) and wants to shift into being an assistant coach with a stable home base. After stumbling upon an unknown talent on the streets of Spain in Bo Cruz (played by the towering real-life Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangómez), Stanley will hitch his own hopes and dreams on turning him into the next big NBA star. Hustle is at its best when we see this central dynamic at play, as Sandler gives a strong showing in capturing both the dedication and desperation that motivates his character to believe in Bo when no one else will.
The movie does sidestep some of the more emotionally complex potential of its own story, dancing around the flawed aspects of Stanley's committed crusade. In particular, there is a looming sense that he may be taking advantage of Bo for his own ends without telling him everything. Even when this all reaches a breaking point, the film lets it fall by the wayside to instead get back on track to being a more conventional underdog story.
There are moments that feel rather bold, drawing out darker aspects to the story the more we learn about Stanley. In such scenes Sandler excels, bringing to life a character who has a good heart though is not beyond making mistakes. There are even moments where you can almost see glimpses of his character from Uncut Gems in how he takes big gambles that could have serious negative repercussions on both his and his family's lives. As we see him make impulsive decisions, Sandler uses humor that is often hit-or-miss while still being in service of the character. While it isn't as immersive as some of his other work — Stanley's clothes aren't that far off from what the actor himself could be wearing after he wandered in off the street — Sandler gives his all to the role with a glimmer in his eye and makes any missteps forgivable.
The film clearly has a love for the game of basketball and its history. The behind-the-scenes elements recall another recent Netflix basketball drama, 2019's High Flying Bird, while not being quite as incisive. Thankfully, the typical training montages and drills are staged with an eye for authenticity that is helped by Hernangómez actually being a good player. Even though he is not on the same level as Sandler when it comes to acting, their dynamic becomes both humorous and heartfelt with banter to spare. There is certainly a more gutsy version of Hustle that could've been mined out of this straightforward story that never quite strikes gold. However, it still works as a solidly constructed sports drama and a further demonstration of Sandler's untapped talents. ♦Hustle