Adam Sandler may officially be entering his Blue Period. Oh, Our Patron Saint of the Holy Abbie-Doobie is still making the sort of broad, big-swing comedies he’s always made, still not afraid to channel his inner manchild in the middle of a lysergic sugar-high. (A friendly reminder: This movie came out in late 2020.) Those are the movies that have earned Sandler nice houses and nine-figure Netflix deals, and far be it from us to criticize how a man butters his very expensive bread. We still ride or die for Billy Madison. No one’s killing the golden-egg goose.
But when you look back on his career and zero in on the detours into more “serious,” or at least less “goofy-ass, juvenile, weird-as-hell” projects, you can see how the 55-year-old movie star has slowly been building up a portfolio outside of his no-brainer hits. There were highs (Punch-Drunk Love, Noah Baumbach’s vastly underrated The Meyerowitz Stories) and lows (Reign Over Me, The Cobbler). And then there was Uncut Gems, which remains in a league of its own and managed to synthesize so much of what’s great and grating about Sandler’s screen persona into one brilliant, twitchy time bomb of a character. It didn’t suggest that the comedian was working outside of his comfort zone so much as he’d aged into a second one, which allowed him to tap into something a little darker and a lot more daring if he wanted to. It felt like Sandler was leveling-up without letting go of what made him a star in the first place.
Hustle, his new movie, isn’t Uncut Gems, not by a long shot. Then again, it doesn’t need to be. It’s a surprisingly good sports movie that wants little more than to be a surprisingly good sports movie, one that knows it’s working with creaky triumph-of-the-underdog clichés but is willing to do a full-court press to sell them. “Obsession wins over talent” is one of the many courtside platitudes you’ll hear — like the genre Hall of Famer Hoosiers, this is a basketball movie that does double duty as a Coaching 101 handbook — and you never doubt that this film has a lot of obsession. You don’t get this amount of blood, sweat, and NBA backroom verisimilitude onscreen without it. It helps that the movie’s got talent on its side as well, from real-life players dropping sopping wet three-pointers to director Jeremiah Zagar calling the shots for these onscreen shot-callers while adding a ragged, indie vibe to everything. (His fictional-feature debut, 2018’s We the Animals, was the sort of woozy, poetic coming-of-age movie that turns being compared to a branch on The Tree of Life into a feature rather than a bug.)
But while teamwork makes the dream work, there’s no question as to which player is the most valuable, or who’s lifting everyone up here. Sandler may not be the sole reason Hustle works, but he’s the one that makes it work way better than it should. You feel like his time spent with the Safdie brothers resulted in him lending Stanley Sugerman, the movie’s washed-out talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, more of a desperate, sad-sack edge; it’s definitely the sort of satisfyingly Sandman-in-Winter turn that taps into the same energy their film successfully harnessed. If nothing else, this drama definitely builds off of the notion that letting a famous hoops aficionado mix with actual pro ballers equals solid gold. Sander trading Gems‘ banter with Keven Barnett worked so well — why not let him hang with what feels like two-thirds of the NBA’s active roster? This should be a new subgenre: The sports-fan wish-fulfillment star vehicle. How else are we going to get Jack Nicholson back on screen?
Having spent too many years on the road, Willy Loman-ing it in chain hotels and eating fast food from Bangkok to Berlin in search of the Next Big NBA Thing, Sugerman is actually within grabbing distance of his personal brass ring. The franchise’s longtime owner (Robert Duvall!) wants to bump him up to assistant coach. He can settle down and spend more time with his wife (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull). Then a sudden death shakes things up and the owner’s son (Ben Foster, oozing born-on-third-base entitlement) sends Stanley back out to scour the globe for “the German M.J.” or whoever else they can draft out of the international backwoods. A trip to Spain turns into a dead end, until Sugerman sees a giant in workboots schooling players at a public court. The guy’s name is Bo Cruz (Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangomez). The execs back in Philly think this raw street baller is just “a giraffe on roller skates.” To Stanley, Cruz is a real-life unicorn — “if Scotty Pippen and a wolf had a baby” — and his own second chance to shoot his shot.
The odds are against both of them, which means Sugerman has to singlehandedly mentor the kid, get him into league shape and strengthen his mental game x 100. (No less than the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, playing a fictional draft favorite, trash-talks Cruz into losing his shit during an exhibition game, and he handles Hustle‘s single best exchange like a pro: “You’re from Spain? Shit sounds wack.”) There will be training montages, and lots of ’em; it probably isn’t a coincidence that this takes place not only on Zagar’s home turf but in the same city of brotherly love that nurtured a one R. Balboa to a heavyweight championship. Speaking of Rocky: There are usually two types of sports-underdog movies, as in the ones that make coming from behind to win inevitable and the ones that make merely going the distance a victory unto itself. Hustle has a tendency to make you wonder which one it’s going to be, even if you strongly suspect you know where it’ll end up and which pitfalls it’ll plop into along the way. Complete genre rehaul, or even mild wheel reinvention, isn’t exactly on the menu.
And yet you can’t help getting engaged in this story that feels older than the game itself, because Sandler makes you feel engaged in it. He’s genuinely invested in this, in a way that feels different than your usual saintly-coach-by-numbers drama with a big above-the-title name. Even when he lightens things up with a few old-school Sandlerisms or the kind of smart-ass smack talk he could do in his sleep, you never sense that he’s phoning it in or winking out at us. Making a sports drama for a streaming service that’s paying you millions of dollars isn’t exactly an artisanal coup or a stakes-are-high gamble — it’s now streaming on Netflix, should you want to go straight from The Ridiculous 6 into a basketball movie — yet Hustle somehow feels more like a one-for-him joint than a one-for-them. It doubles down on the dour weariness of its central character and doesn’t downplay the tenuous nature of making it in the big leagues; it’s a feel-good movie that actually tries to earn its feel-good bona fides. Basketball vans will dig the way it weaves so many living legends and up-and-comers into its dramatic offense. Everyone else will just admire the movie’s hustle.