New from Peter Spedale on Be Movie See Movie: Movie Review: Hustle

To become a great sports movie in 2022, you can’t just make a film about a generic underdog team overcoming the odds anymore. Like Moneyball or Ford v. Ferrari, you have to bring something more specific to the table. In Hustle’s case, that means apparently an Adam Sandler and LeBron James partnership. The strange pairing pays off and then some, with a great story from multiple angles and all sorts of new exciting faces to root for. Plus we get the return of Uncut Gems acting talent Sandler, putting the Happy in “Happy Madison Productions” for me, and hopefully for everyone.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. As a former college star, Stanley has worked his way up the 76ers org with his sharp eye for great players, garnering the approval of the aging owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). As Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) starts to take over the team, Stanley finds himself having to reprove himself to the next Merrick generation, and is sent on assignment to find some targets for the Sixers to draft. After an unsuccessful European scouting trip, Stanley ends up at a park in Spain, and spots Bo Cruz (real life NBA player Juancho Hernangomez) hustling guys on the playground. Stanley’s instincts kick in, and leads him to helping Bo try to end up fulfilling a dream of playing in the NBA.

Hustle at its heart is a double underdog story, clearly mirroring Stanley Sugerman and Bo Cruz’s lives. But Hustle’s specificity about the NBA is what makes it special. The movie merges two fascinating parts of professional basketball – the on the ground lives of a talent scout, and prospects considering playing basketball professionally, probably something producer Lebron James might know a little bit about – into one constantly intriguing tale. The movie sets you up right away with a well executed montage of Stanley’s day to day job. It’s a lonely existence: he lives in beautiful but empty hotel rooms, dines on fast food, spends all his time away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). And we haven’t gotten to his actual work yet! When Stanley’s on the job, his opinion determines if he’s fired or not, so he has to be critical and fair, and project the little time he has with these prospects into the possibility of them becoming a star in the NBA. A lonely, high stress life is all over Stanley’s face and demeanor by minute 11. From Bo Cruz’s side, we see just the mountain of obstacles that have to be overcome to simply play basketball professionally. Many of these players come from nothing, or even worse, and Hustle shows how threats come physically, mentally, historically, and sometimes even from forces outside of your control, testing you in every public way. There NO WAY I was ready to handle the pressure of becoming an NBA player at 22 like Bo, but Hustle’s story does a great job mounting the barriers Bo must overcome, making him easier and easier to root for as the movie goes along, one training montage at a time.

If there was a worry with Hustle, it was from the acting side, with a majority of the cast being NBA players. However, I’m happy to report that everyone here ranges from perfectly fine to damn impressive. Even though he’s not a Bo Cruz level star on the court, Juancho Hernangomez might end up being one in front of the camera. He certainly looks the part, easily excelling in the training regimen the movie puts him through. However, it’s in the smaller moments that Hernangomez cements our love for Bo Cruz. We feel all the internal anger and anguish through this gauntlet of turbulence; plus apparently Juancho can cry on cue, a skill only the great actors possess. The movie could find another Sandler, but Hustle needs Juancho Hernangomez to be great, and thankfully, he was. In small parts, Anthony Edwards and Kenny Smith show some acting chops themselves, with Edwards playing a great NBA heel and Kenny Smith dialing it back from Inside the NBA to channel a high profile agent. And then there’s Adam Sandler. The acting vet knows everyone else is probably gonna be hella nervous being in their first movie, so Sandler steps up and delivers a great dramatic performance as Stanley Sugerman. There’s some of that Happy Madison wit inside Stanley, but Sandler plays him more world weary and subdued, essentially as a leading man. The Sand man lets the people around him be more themselves while he anchors the story and tone with his performance, setting up his teammates for open shots, if you will.

I hope Hustle encourages Lebron and Sandler to work more together. Maybe make Hustle into a fun little franchise, with more scouting tales from Stanley’s younger or later years. I would like to see which NBA players think they can act, and I would also like to see Anthony Edwards simply more in society in general. If you haven’t learned about the Ant Man yet, I hope this movie encourages you to look up highlights of his

from Be the Movie, See the Movie

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