“This is a film that makes the most out of a precarious placement – it sometimes teeters on the edge of a more generic and far less inspired version of itself, but an energetic realization and wholly committed spirit pay dividends.”
by Ken Bakely
You know what Jeremiah Zagar’s Hustle is going to be about. You know what this movie wants to do, before even seeing it. You know it in your sleep. Every beat, every conflict, and every resolution. A movie like this isn’t here to reinvent the sports drama from the ground up, but if it can convince you that it’s worth telling this story again, and it can do it with a degree of enthusiasm and clear ability, then its familiar path can still be rousing and engaging – and to a fair extent, this movie succeeds on that front. When it focuses on its characters – the specific interplay and the rapport – it really can excel. Adam Sandler is a capable and earnest anchor, starring as Stanley, a professional basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who travels the world looking for top-tier talent to bring back to his team. His searches have so far been fruitless, and the front office is in chaos after its beloved owner (Robert Duvall) has died, leaving his less capable son, Vince (Ben Foster), in charge. But a demoralized Stanley has his spirits lifted when, in a chance encounter, he discovers Bo (Juancho Hernangómez), a working-class young man from Spain who is a brilliant (and completely untested) player. He seems to have everything a team could want.
Stanley convinces him to come to the United States, under the full expectation that he can get Bo signed immediately. But Vince refuses to take a chance on him, leading Stanley to quit the team, and desperately call in favors to secure Bo a spot on the NBA Draft Combine. However, now independent, Stanley struggles to navigate the league’s monolithic structures, and discovers that Bo’s rough personality and troubled past may present more complications. From there, Hustle continues apace with its – again, highly familiar – story. It really does bear further emphasis that evaluating what does or doesn’t make this movie interesting is to discuss the specifics of its execution. What shines are individual ideas, performances, and moments that liven things up. In the starring role, Sandler is good at both loudly projecting Stanley’s outward belligerence and more evident internal turmoil. He’s well aware that he’s asked so much of his wife, Teresa, (Queen Latifah) and teen daughter, Alex, (Jordan Hull) by seldom being present at home amid his life on the road. Now, without a job and with their livelihoods on the line, the feeling is intensified exponentially.
As an extension, Sandler’s interactions with Hernangómez’s Bo also simultaneously convey a desperate desire to validate his own reputation while trying to genuinely accomplish something for this young recruit with extraordinary potential. And in that role, Hernangómez, of the Utah Jazz, makes a compelling acting debut; he’s part of Hustle’s long list of supporting roles or cameo appearances from basketball players and personalities. (And along those lines, I would be remiss not to mention the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, who is brilliantly villainous as the delightfully named Kermit Wills, a trash-talking rival of Bo’s on the Draft Combine. It’s the ideal image of great, antagonistic minor role, and he handles it excellently. Someone should be writing more stuff for him right now.)
Hustle’s fine ensemble, whether they’re seasoned actors or not, understands what makes this material work when it does: a comfortable and clear-cut, but wholly unambiguous, sincerity. What is important is that the movie believes in its own ideas. When Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ script (which tends toward rather gray storytelling as it is) treats its material with anything resembling an exhausted or resigned telling of its material, the entire film threatens to melt down in its own clichés. But the cast’s electric dynamism and Zagar’s spry direction never allow for this to overwhelm the proceedings; you can see it everywhere, down to its wisps of comic banter – which a lesser movie would write off as an obligatory relief of its own drama – are given their due, with space and ease and timing, which one could probably attribute to its star. This is a film that makes the most out of a precarious placement – it sometimes teeters on the edge of a more generic and far less inspired version of itself, but an energetic realization and wholly committed spirit pay dividends. They make for mostly solid and entertaining results, delivered with an agile grace and rhythm.