While Netflix struggles in many areas, they’ve also created some surprising partnerships. For the past few years, the films and shows related to the National Basketball Association (NBA) have been stellar. They co-financed and developed The Last Dance documentary series about Michael Jordan and landed Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird in 2019. Their latest film, Hustle, combines their partnership with the NBA with one of the biggest stars, Adam Sandler. The comedian, long known for his love of the league and the sport, helped develop Hustle with NBA figures LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Featuring an all-star cast and excellent direction, Hustler allows Sandler to showcase his immense talent as a dramatic actor. This is sports movie heaven, and Hustle soars.
A down-on-his-luck NBA Scout, Stanley Sugerman (Sandler), has grown weary of life on the road. After believing he would move to coach, Philadelphia 76ers owner Vince Merrick (Ben Foster) sends him back out to find the next superstar. Stanley misses his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) but does not want to lose his clout in the league. When he discovers a Spanish phenom Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), Stanley fights to change the story for himself and Bo.
Sandler has long been the subject of ridicule from critics, many of whom know the depths of emotion he can access. Sandler remains one of those performers that can turn it on when he tries, but his lackadaisical demeanor makes many believe he does not care about his work output. That could not be further from the truth, as Sandler often pitches himself to match the tones of the film. Even in a movie like Hubie Halloween, Sandler’s skill for silly adolescent comedy is never in doubt. Whether the audience connects to the subject matter remains a different story.
His acclaimed performance in Uncut Gems may have pushed him to work with better filmmakers, which could be the difference. In Hustle, he showcases the emotional depth and sad-clown energy he can bring. Yet he inspires hope and joy when he shows his excitement. It’s a performance for anyone who has ever felt burnt out, and Sandler expertly communicates the return to pure joy doing something you love.
The secret sauce to Hustle comes from director Jeremiah Zagar, an up-and-coming talent with independent experience. His last film, We the Animals, charmed the film festival circuit and showed immense promise. Much of the success of Hustle can be traced back to that film, which featured a majority cast of first-time actors. For Hustle, Zagar directs and shoots basketball with actual professionals from the league. Hernangómez currently plays for the Utah Jazz and is one of the dozens of players to appear in the film. Like a great coach, Zagar sets his talent up to succeed and finds ways to make every performer give naturalistic performances. Hernangómez surprises as a dramatic performer, and recent phenom Anthony Edwards feasts as the pseudo-antagonist of the film.
Zagar’s fingerprints do not end with the performances but with how he shoots the film. At times, Hustle takes on a documentary feel that adds to the realism of the action. Extreme close-ups of players on the court become something of a trademark, adding energy and electricity to the basketball sequences. Few films or shows have ever portrayed the game’s energy well, and Hustle makes a visually strong argument to be one of the best depictions of the sport on camera. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan nabs some genuinely gorgeous and unique shots throughout the film.
Few Netflix movies feel like the editing is of the utmost importance, but Hustle makes a strong argument for that to change. A montage halfway through the film undeniably shines as one of the great sports film moments of the last five years. The three-person team of Keiko Deguchi, Tom Costain, and Brian M. Robinson deserve heaps of credit for the film’s balance. While Robinson and Costain come from Sandler’s team, Deguchi comes from Zagar, the group expertly handles the comedic tones one expects from a Sandler film while never relenting on the heart of a sports drama.
The only real knock against Hustle comes from its length. At just under two hours, some of the fluff could have been wiped away. We feel the bloat during the middle of the film, so some viewers will lose focus. The irony of whipping the movie into shape and shedding a few pounds is not lost on me. Ultimately, slimming it down to an hour and forty minutes may have been ideal.
For both Sandler and Zagar, Hustle represents a turning point. Anyone who watches Hustle can feel Zagar’s shifty camera and talent for capturing unique imagery. Sandler again turns out an outstanding performance, and he feels destined to find his way back into the awards conversation soon. Watching Sandler commit to great films is always exciting, and Hustle will surprise everyone. It’s fun to root for an underdog like this one.
Alan’s Grade: 9/10