Hustle is the latest in an ever-increasing string of movies produced from the partnership, which began in 2014 and originally had Sandler locked in for four films. He eventually delivered five titles before the streaming giant forked over a cool $250M more for another four. To say that the streaming era has been kind to the Sandman is an understatement, and despite an obvious shift in quality from project to project, there’s no denying the man’s smarts.
Hustle is a serious film – with moments of levity – and Sandler relishes the opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles again. Audiences know how good he can be, as proven in films like Punch Drunk Love and his recent tour de force performance in Uncut Gems. And while the look of his latest flick may appear comedic from a promotional perspective, it is very much an earnest and at times fervent story.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who puts his career on the line to recruit a Spanish player with a questionable past. Up against a newly appointed and combative team owner (Ben Foster), who succeeds his father (Robert Duvall) in the position, Sugarman stakes his life and the security of his family to prove the kid’s worth, with the intention of having him selected and drafted into the NBA.
It is formulaic, of course, but Hustle is also raw and compelling. Sandler straddles the line between happy and sad as only he can, and his ability to pivot his performance between being a loving, yet absent husband and father, and a ruthless manager turned couch is the foundation that keeps the movie grounded. He is entirely likeable despite pulling no punches to get what he wants, all while maintaining integrity and dignity, and with room to squeeze in the occasional gag, he offers the audience a character they can truly root for.
It may come as a surprise that most of the basketball figures in the film are played by actual NBA players, some being fictionalised and others playing themselves. This includes Sandler’s co-star, Spanish basketball player Juancho Hernangomez, who puts any question of his acting abilities to rest. He is excellent as the troubled young man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is a lurching figure, who towers over all who meet him, and yet he is tormented. For Hernangomez to conjure such the tangible relatability is a testament to him, and his talent certainly extends beyond the basketball court.
Foster is also excellent as the arrogant and ruthless team owner, whose approach to running the business goes against all that his father spent a lifetime building. He is as equally intimidating as he is pathetic, and it’s a well-measured performance that dances with clichés, without falling victim to parody. Despite Duvall’s role being limited to an extended cameo, his presence adds weight to the story nonetheless. Seeing him and Sandler trade lines is a wonderful thing, and despite Duvall’s 91 years of age, he looks incredible and doesn’t miss a beat.
Hustle is not based on a true story, but it feels like one. It is raw and often dour, and the ebbs and flows of the narrative also make it unpredictable. Of course, the outcome is inevitable, but the tried and true formula so many films rely on is subverted here and taken in unexpected directions. Whether you’re a sports fan, or simply a move fan, Hustle is a huge score for Sandler and a rewarding experience for viewers.