“Men in their fifties don’t have dreams. They have nightmares and eczema,” exclaims Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) to his wife one evening in their Philadelphia home. Stanley is a veteran scout for the Philadelphia 76ers despite having dreams of becoming an assistant coach. He has been on the grind as a scout for over two decades, traveling all over the world to see what talented basketball players overseas could possibly be a good fit for the 76ers. He eats only fast food on the road and hasn’t been home for his daughter’s birthday in years. His hopes of becoming an assistant coach look bleak, especially when Vince Merrick (Ben Foster) takes over the team following the death of his beloved father Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall).
While scouting in Spain, Stanley checks out a local street ball game taking place with a raucous crowd. He is impressed by Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a young man who is taking over the court in construction boots and cargo shorts. After some negotiating, Stanley convinces Bo to fly back with him to Philadelphia and practice in front of the 76ers in hopes that Bo will be his ticket to assistant coaching.
Hustle perfectly blends conventional sports movie beats while showing us a different side to the basketball movie. It is an inspiring and rousing film about a man who is down on his luck and finds a glimmer of hope by a chance miracle and pushes that hope with every ounce of passion in his body. Sandler proves once again that he has the chops of a great dramatic actor, showcasing Stanley’s passion and intensity while also sliding in some of his patented humor and charm. Sandler’s everyman attitude and love of basketball made him a perfect choice for Stanley. Because Sandler doesn’t have the quintessential movie-star good looks of actors like a Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, we believe him as a grinder but also believe him as someone at the bottom of the totem pole in the 76ers organization. You feel his frustration when he is sent back on the road by Vince and when Bo’s immaturity comes out and feel the rise he gets when Bo does something great. Sandler makes it really easy to root for Stanley and Sandler’s experience and love for the game of basketball make the scenes when he is coaching Bo more believable and authentic. It also probably helped him cast tons of current and former NBA players in the film, including Kenny Smith as a hot shot agent, current Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards as Bo’s biggest rival during his recruitment, and players like Tobias Harris, Trae Young, Kyle Lowery, and the legendary “Dr. J” Julius Erving all starring as themselves.
Despite taking place in the world of the NBA, Hustle doesn’t feature a lot of NBA action. Instead, director Jeremiah Zagar and screenwriters Will Fetters and Taylor Materne focus on the smaller aspects of the NBA world. We are taken behind the scenes to see how NBA teams go about their recruiting in preparation for the NBA draft. We sit in meetings, practices, and pick up games and see how the scouts look at players. This reminded me a bit of Bennett Miller’s 2011 Moneyball, the baseball drama where all the action took place behind the scenes and little of it took place on the actual diamond. Hustle feels like the NBA version of that. It is a different kind of basketball movie, but one that is always captivating. Fetters and Materne also did their research when it comes to inspirational sports movies, as they hit the familiar beats that we know and expect from a great sports movie, but never making it feel forced or cheesy and making it work perfectly within the story.
The film’s set pieces are the scrimmages Stanley has Bo play in and they are electrifying. Having actual NBA players play in the scrimmages helps make them feel authentic. Zager doesn’t do a ton of cutting in the scenes and his camera glides along with the players on the court, allowing us to appreciate the talent of the players and understand the obstacles that Bo is facing trying to get into the NBA. The sequences are fast and precise and make you feel like you are in the gym watching Bo ball his heart out at a shot at the NBA.
Hustle is an absolute winner. Led by an excellent Adam Sandler performance and some of the most authentic basketball sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie, this is an inspirational and exciting film about not giving up when all seems lost and never losing your passion for what you love.