In ‘Hustle,’ Adam Sandler Hits the Court as an Endearing Underdog 

Sports always provide the best cinema underdogs because of the need to prove oneself in a way where the results are definite. You either win or lose. Adam Sandler has reached beyond his goofball comedic persona before, but he’s never given a performance quite like the one in “Hustle.” It’s a basketball movie that isn’t really about hitting the hardwood. Sandler and director Jeremiah Zagar are building a portrait of a man down on his luck, wrecked by doubt, who holds on to the sport that gives him some meaning. He never attempts to even remind us of his famous early self. The humor is like brief glimpses of happiness when you’re getting tired but need to keep going. It’s the performance that fuels this movie.

Stanley Sugerman (Sandler) is a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, whose well-being depends on finding fresh talent around the world. He was once an excellent prospect himself, until bad decisions resulted in an injury that permanently benched Stanley. Luck seems to finally smile when the team’s owner, Rex (Robert Duvall) names Stanley assistant coach. The luck does not last long and when Rex passes away, his egotistical son Vince (Ben Foster) takes over. Vince has no desire to see Stanley rise and orders him to go seek exciting new talent. During a trip to Mallorca, Spain that turns out to be an initial dud, Stanley catches sight of Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), an impressive street baller. Convinced of the young Spaniard’s abilities, Stanley offers to fly him to Philadelphia and present him to Vince and the coaches. It doesn’t necessarily go as planned and Stanley goes freelance, still pushing to get Bo into the pros.

Much of the nature of the story in “Hustle” is undoubtedly familiar territory. It’s engaging through a combination of Sandler and the style of director Zagar, who made “We the Animals,” a lyrical evocation of a Puerto Rican writer’s childhood in rural New York state. “Hustle” is shot in a similar grainy style, but with the rush of an underdog fighting against time. Stanley is a likable protagonist wallowing in his own flaws. He has a wonderful wife in Teresa (Queen Latifah) who was his college sweetheart and fellow athlete and a daughter (Jordan Hull), who has dreams of going to film school. Yet he’s living on a particular edge, coming so close to a cushy job with the assistant coach position that gets cruelly taken away. He survives on junk food while traveling, to Teresa’s frustration. Sandler has a particular way of playing these personas who get themselves cornered into trouble and need to think fast, like his lovelorn business owner in “Punch-Drunk Love” or compulsive gambler in “Uncut Gems.” There’s a fitting, tired feel to the performance that also gives it empathy, momentarily broken when Stanley sees real hope in Bo.

“Hustle” is so tailor-made for basketball fans that it’s peppered all over with real-life NBA personalities. Coaches play themselves and even Juancho Hernangomez plays with the Utah Jazz. He’s so good in the role precisely because he knows what it’s all about. His Bo is hot-tempered and Stanley has to learn to teach him to control it. On the court he’s boldly challenged by a rival player who likes to taunt him in whispers before and during games. Zagar captures the pressure of such moments with close-ups that evoke the claustrophobia of being so close to another player, you can probably smell their breath. Stanley faces his own such challenges with egos like Vince, who don’t shy away from calling him a loser who never makes the right decisions. While the basketball scenes are exciting, the screenplay by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne never romanticizes the professional sports world. Like “Any Given Sunday,” the coaches and players range from nice to cutthroat, with the demands of commerce overshadowing sportsmanship. 

Some viewers may fault “Hustle” for choosing safer avenues to resolve its story. Sports films just can’t escape the need to have feel-good endings or messages. What makes Stanley stand out is that he may be seeking a heroic goal in introducing Bo to the world, but he’s also battling internal demons that derail him at the worst moment. There’s a scene as good as any Sandler has ever done, where he drives and tells Bo the story of his injury. It has a vulnerability the actor has rarely displayed in his more dramatic efforts. “Hustle” will probably work best for those who already love the game, but it has plenty to strike a chord with viewers who don’t have to be experts to feel the coach’s journey.

Hustle” begins streaming June 8 on Netflix.