Adam Sandler, who’s a prolific movie producer, is at his best as an actor when playing a businessperson, as he does in “Hustle” (on Netflix), a breezy yet earnest basketball drama about the internal politics of the NBA Because he’s neither an exceptional physical comedian nor a theatrically technical one but, rather, an extremely talented verbal one, Sandler is at his most interesting when his performances stick close to his own experience—or, at least, when they stand in a psychologically revealing relationship to it. That’s what he does in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” in the role of a famous comedian, and in the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” in the role of a bling jeweler with a sports-gambling problem. In “Hustle”—which isn’t nearly as morally severe as “Funny People,” as freewheelingly tragic as “Uncut Gems,” or as aesthetically distinctive as either—Sandler gets to indulge the sport that he loves and fuse it with the garlicky , life-worn insiderness of his entertainment career.
“Hustle” is in the genre of avocational cinema, in which the star combines his passion for basketball with his understanding that it’s also a business—and with his experience of the entertainment industry at large. Sandler didn’t write or direct it, but he dominates it. Though with little in the way of directorial originality, character development, or social perspective to recommend it, “Hustle” manages to turn a clattery plot and a treacly sentimentality into a refracted self-portrait, a work of personal cinema. The script, by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, goes deep into the details of turning an athlete into a pro, both physically and mentally, and of the exacting labors of the sport’s executives to effect that transformation. It’s, essentially, a movie-business story, with Sandler playing a member of the production staff, whose contributions are crucial, misunderstood, and nearly anonymous, except to other insiders in the know. He’s waiting for his chance to move up, and, when he finds that he can’t, he takes an entrepreneurial, independent risk. Adam Sandler, producer and star, stars as a producer.
He plays Stanley Sugerman, a former Temple University college-basketball star who has put in thirty years behind the scenes. He’s an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, and his many years on the road have worn him and embraced his home life with his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), also a former Temple star athlete, and their teen-age daughter, Alex ( Jordan Hull). The team’s elderly owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), an old-style so-called self-made man from a humble background, has great respect for Stanley’s acumen and abilities of him, and grants him a long-awaited promotion to the coaching staff. But Rex dies suddenly, and his arrogant, bratty, self-righteous son of him, Vince (Ben Foster), boots Stanley from the new job and orders him back on the road to find a potential star for the team to draft. (As Stanley tells his wife about him, “There was only one guy who knew what I was capable of, and he died.”)
On a trip to Spain, Stanley goes looking for a pickup game to play in; he finds a supremely gifted, raw talent named Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, who plays for the Utah Jazz in real life) and brings him to Philadelphia, where things quickly fall apart. Vince orders Stanley to cut ties with Bo, but Stanley is sure of the young man’s ability and character of him, and has already made a commitment to him and to his mother of him (María Botto). Stanley takes matters into his own hands: he quits to develop Bo’s talent independently in preparation for the NBA draft. To do so, however, he spends his own money, without telling Teresa. He also lies to Bo about the Sixers’ involvement.
The French say, “There’s no such thing as love, there’s only the proof of love,” and that’s the central idea that Stanley imparts to Bo—the lesson of effort and self-discipline that’s required to make it to the pros. Bo, though clearly a star in the making (Stanley says, “The kid is like if Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby”), doesn’t yet have the physical conditioning, the mental outlook, or the skill set of players who can turn pro—players who, at colleges in the US or on international teams, have had the benefit of infrastructure and coaching. Stanley must become Bo’s coach, trainer, psychologist, and surrogate father. Whether by being up and out early enough to rouse Bo from his hotel bed at four in the morning for daily uphill runs or putting Bo through a battery of tightly focussed on-court exercises (involving such piquant details as dribbling two balls at once or throwing one of them through a rolling truck tire), Stanley puts as much care and exertion into the training as it demands of the athlete himself.
Another potential young star, Kermit Wilts (played by Anthony Edwards, a real-life member of the Minnesota Timberwolves), gets into Bo’s head with increasingly stinging trash talk, and Stanley works to help Bo keep his focus. The movie is filled with actual basketball eminences, whose very presence is invigorating; Other current players in the film include Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle, as well as classic stars such as Doc Rivers (the Sixers’ real-life coach), Julius Erving, and Mark Jackson. Sandler riffs his way through the action with acerbic warmth, and his dialogue is peppered with basketball wisdom. (“Obsession is gonna beat talent every time”; “You absorbed the contact. I need you to finish through the contact”; “It’s you against you out there, and right now you is kicking your ass”; “It’s about the next shot and the next shot and the next shot”; “A good player knows where he is on the court. A great player knows where everybody else is.”)
“Hustle” is, in effect, Sandler’s version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1954 inside-Hollywood drama, “The Barefoot Contessa,” in which a studio director with a failing career (Humphrey Bogart) travels to Spain and meets a dive-bar dancer (Ava Gardner), whom he brings to Hollywood and turns into a movie star, albeit with tragic results. The essentially documentary element of the fine points of basketball is the core charm of “Hustle,” extending also to the hard-nosed view of Stanley’s professional life and the web of connections that is fundamental to his ability to get things done. The direction of “Hustle,” by Jeremiah Zagar, is affectionate and efficient; he takes pleasure in filming a sport without delivering distinctive visual insights into its details or delights. The movie is set mainly in Philadelphia, Zagar’s home town, and he gives the outdoor action an appealing, albeit promotional, sense of place. With another inevitable twist of sentiment, Stanley’s efforts are also a family affair, depending, at a key moment, on Teresa’s own connections and on Alex’s untapped skills and generational knowledge of her. Yet the feel-good sentimentality that ultimately, of course, triumphs can’t dispel the threats of failure, even tragedy, that shadows the action. Sandler sells sentiment, but he’s fascinated by the reality of the game and the business, and it shows. ♦