Adam Sandler is no stranger to doing dramatic work, but it’s sometimes hard to find the perfect dramatic role for him that really caters to his talents as a performer. Hustle finds the sweet spot that taps into his genuine capabilities as a dramatic actor, but also saves room for what makes him so charming and likeable in the comedies he stars in with a sports story that may be a bit conventional at times but is nonetheless a feel-good, warm-hearted story by the end. The film follows Stanley Sugarman (Sandler) a jaded and tired NBA scout who travels the world for fresh talent while he’d rather be at home with his wife and daughter. When and where he least expects it, he finds Bo Cruz (played by NBA star Juancho Hernangomez), a naturally gifted player who is currently scamming people out of money with his basketball skills. Stanley eventually persuades Bo to come to America to try out for the NBA, all the while dealing with his own issues.
My favorite types of sports films are always the ones that have a perfect balance with the behind-the-scenes/inner-workings of the sports and getting to know the heart of the player(s) you’re following in this story; that’s why my favorite sports film of all time is Bennett Miller’s Moneyball – a film that is not completely dissimilar from Hustle. While I would say that Hustle is slightly more focused on the sports element than Moneyball is, both films are highly romantic about the sport that is being portrayed and have a deep fascination with both the statistics of it all and the personal lives of the players and how that directly impacts the sport/business deals.
One thing that is a small pet-peeve of mine in basketball films is when films try to portray the NBA in a fictional light and it just entirely feels implausible and unlike what we know the NBA to be in our real world, but Hustle makes the extra effort to have its facts right and feels as though you’re peaking into the real inner-workings of how they operate as a business and treat their players/scouts. It’s not always the most flattering look but it also feels extremely honest, and films that feel authentic go a long way when it comes time for you to care about the story and characters by the end of it.
Sandler’s chemistry with Hernangomez (who is absolutely great in his first feature-length film), his wife (played by Queen Latifah), and his daughter (Jordan Hull) is what makes this film feel genuinely heartfelt and not just surface-level in its drama. While it does feel a bit by-the-numbers at times when presenting its story or trying to surprise you with certain plot turns, the film always manages to quickly win you back with simply being a likeable and enjoyable film with characters you can root for and believe in – even when they don’t believe in themselves.