Adam Sandler’s turn as an NBA scout elevates Hustle to sit among the great sports films. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Adam Sandler’s basketball Hustle
Maybe a spoiler alert is appropriate here – or maybe not. Hustle – the new, effusively praised Netflix basketball drama – hews so faithfully to the familiar tropes of the sports pic that this courtesy seems redundant.
Directed with surprising subtlety by Jeremiah Zagar but dominated by its star Adam Sandler, Hustle is defined by its classically braided protagonists: a gifted but jaded coach furiously attempting to redeem himself through his devotion to another; and the aspiring athlete who, through skill, tenacity and the encouragement of his mentor, overcomes considerable emotional and political obstructions.
You get the gist. Along the way, their faith in themselves and each other will dramatically wane, be soulfully restored, and their final bond – forged in triumph – will seem almost sacred.
That’s the rough plot to most sports films, and it’s the rough plot to this one too. But Hustle is being celebrated as one of the best sports films ever made because the old formula is expressed with wonderful acting, restrained sentimentality, an eye to the business of elite sport, and a rare focus on the technicality of basketball and its coaching. That is, the formula is expressed almost perfectly. It’s a genre gem.
In this case, the coach is really a scout. Stanley Sugerman, a weary but affable Sandler, once played a decent college game, but his gift is now searching for unsigned talent overseas for the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s exhausting work, and largely obscure, and it painfully removes him from his family. His permanently braced hand only hints at why he’s persisted with hotel rooms and fruitless quests while he misses his daughter’s birthdays.
The family doesn’t want for money and generously indulges his work, which, Sugerman assumes, will eventually result in promotion.
And it does. The team’s owner, Rex Merrick (a gruff Robert Duvall), elevates Sugerman to assistant coach – and then dies suddenly, leaving the team to his callow son, who disguises his ineptitude with aggression and corporate platitudes. Jealous and insecure, Merrick junior’s front office will not be a cabinet of rivals, and Sugerman is spitefully returned to scouting duties.
His slog resumes, until Sugerman comes across a pick-up game in the distant slums of Mallorca. In the form of single father and construction worker Bo Cruz, who hustles the asphalt courts in his workboots, Sugerman thinks he’s found his unicorn – a potential NBA star whom no one knows. “The kid is like if Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby,” Sugerman gushes, and Cruz’s raw talent is easy to believe – he’s played by the Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez.
And so Sugerman rolls his dice, coaxes Cruz back to Philly, and the plot progresses more or less as you’d expect. But what’s so surprising is that its emotional beats are achieved so subtly. Often these films creak and groan beneath the weight of their own sentimentality, and the schmaltz sickens or obscures the actual subject of its protagonists’ love – in this case basketball. But in Hustle, the schmaltz is (largely) replaced with a fastidious attention to the game itself, while its audience is thought sufficiently intelligent to not need close-ups, swelling strings or florid monologues to emphasise the emotion.
Hernangómez is one of many current and former players to occupy the film, giving its action scenes an electric realism that most sport flicks lack. Typically, dramatised sports scenes rely on close-ups and hyperactive cameras to suggest the game’s kineticism – they’re conspicuously faked, in other words – but not here. Zagar has thought seriously and well about how to film the sport.
It pleasantly reminded me of Love & Mercy, the 2014 biopic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. So many biopics of artists rarely bother with the actual act of creation. But here was a rare example that spent time in the studio with Wilson, lovingly re-creating his idiosyncratic writing and arrangement of the magical Pet Sounds – the surprising uses of a bicycle bell and a bobby pin to pluck a piano string.
And so too does Hustle care enough to look excitedly at the very thing that bears the drama of the film. It becomes a love letter to basketball simply by paying attention to it. But the film doesn’t slavishly romanticise the game, either. One of its achievements is giving us occasional glimpses of the sport not only as romantic fixation but as a major business filled with pimps, dubious intentions and the influential sound and fury of the media.
But, true to the genre, Hustle only faintly gestures to the costs of the obsession Sugerman’s there to validate and stiffen in his protégé. “Obsession is going to beat talent every time,” Sugerman tells Cruz. “You got all the talent in the world, but are you obsessed?” We stick around only long enough to see the fruits of that obsession and not its potential derangements.
The late Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant called it “the ugliness of greatness” and writer Bill Simmons expanded upon it: “[Michael Jordan] evolved into a withering, homicidally competitive bully … And Kobe tried to evolve into a withering, homicidally competitive bully, if only because his idol acted that way once upon a time. Eventually, that’s what he became.”
Which is a long way from the decency of Bo Cruz, or the warmth of his mentor. In Hustle, Adam Sandler exudes a lovely, lowkey charm. He’s excellent, and it’s funny: there are still expressions of surprise when he gives a wonderful dramatic performance. But we’ve been expressing the same surprise for 20 years now, since at least Punch-Drunk Love.
The English writer Martin Amis says he thinks of himself these days as a host, and his reader a respected guest. This should be the writer’s decorum, he says. You should engage, be interesting and accommodate your guests’ intelligence without alienating them with arrogant experimentalism. “Social realism ... is a sociable form,” he says, rather prescriptively, and imagines his hero Vladimir Nabokov as a literal host, welcoming you warmly, offering the finest wine and giving you the chair closest to the fire. James Joyce, on the other hand, he imagines as giving his guest the wrong address and, once they’ve arrived, repulsive drink and food.
Hustle offers us a comfortable seat by the fire. It’s charming, emotionally satisfying and curious about its subject, and, while leisurely paced and largely predictable, it somehow justifies its two hours. Move over Hoosiers.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Scoring points".
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