As a movie lover, there’s a few things I thought I’d never see. One was when David Lynch made a G-rated movie that was distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Another is to see a Happy Madison Production that actually might be a very good Oscar contender with a great performance by Adam Sandler. I say performance because Sandler does some of his best work here.
Sandler is now 55 and there comes a time when a man in middle-age must realize that he can’t do the same frat boy dick-and-fart jokes that made him popular anymore. Like his character said in Airheads, “I ain’t farting on no snare drum.” I think of a comment the late film critic Roger Ebert said of Chevy Chase in Funny Farm calling it a performance rather than an appearance.
And that’s what most of Sandler’s roles in the Happy Madison Productions have been. Even though many of them became box-office hits, they scrapped the bottom of the barrel in the film critic review, especially with Jack and Jill and Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. But Sandler has finally released a great movie that showcases his talents as an actor.
He’s done this before in many roles such as Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems. Even roles in Spanglish and The Cobbler, which didn’t get the best reviews, Sandler was showing he didn’t have to resort to what made him popular in the 1990s/early 2000s.
In Hustle, recently released on Netflix, Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, who sounds like a role he’s played before in a silly comedy. But Stanley is an aging international scout for the Philadephia 76ers. This has taken a toll on his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah in a surprisingly caring, gentle role) and his daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull) who is close to graduating high school. Stanley has a scruffy beard where specs of white/grey hairs are beginning to show. We also find out that Stanley himself was once a basketball player who was involved in an accident that caused permanent damage to his left hand.
One day, the team owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall in a nice, small cameo) promotes Stanley to an assistant coach position. It seems that everything is going to change. He won’t be on the road as much and will be able to spend more time with his wife and daughter before she goes off to college. But Rex passes away and his son, Vince (Ben Foster), isn’t willing to keep his father’s wishes and demotes him back to a scout a few months later.
Stanley travels to Spain to spot one prospect but becomes more interested in another player he sees during a pick-up basketball game. The player is Bo Cruz (real-life player Juancho Hernagomez) and Bo isn’t too convinced Stanley is real until he does a quick face-time with real player Dirk Nowitzki to prove he’s legitimate.
But problems arise when Stanley brings Bo to America. First, Bo is detained by Customs as it’s revealed he has an aggravated assault conviction in Spain. This mean if Bo causes any problems, he can be sent back. Stanley refuses to take the demeaning orders from Vince and quits. Instead, he decides to try to enter Bo into the draft on his own.
Stanley and Bo begin a training regiment and they begin to bond. Stanley sees Bo as his last effort to turn things around. Bo, himself, is quick to anger and Stanley must make him control himself from the taunts and trash talk of other players. It becomes a family affair as Teresa and Alex help by filming and posting Bo’s workouts online. But Stanley must battle with the higher-ups as it’s publicly revealed about Bo’s assault conviction that could damage any draft chances.
In many ways, this seems like a spiritual sequel to Jerry Maguire. Stanley sees something in Bo and feels Bo can make it. But both men aren’t without their faults. Bo was originally a draft contender when he was a teenager but decided to stay in Spain after getting his girlfriend pregnant and has been living with his mother, Paolo (Maria Botto) and taking care of his daughter, Lucia (Ainhoa Pillet). You can see that Bo doesn’t want to miss out on his daughter’s life but he could make things better for her.
There’s some humor as Stanley helps Bo with his behavior by talking trash to him to get him to block it out. And Bo seems to think the concept of room services and minibars is great but doesn’t understand it can be costly. There’s a big mention of Bo ordering porno movies and trying to act like he didn’t. Teresa tells Stanley to remind Bo that porn is free online.
For the most part, Hustle works great when we’re seeing these characters interact. I know it’s about professional basketball but too many cameos by pro-ballers Allen Iverson, Julius Irving and Shaquille O’Neal to name a few as well as scenes of Mark Cuban seem more like distractions. I felt this is a necessary evil that you can easily overlook thanks to the way the rest of the movie operates.
Facing past criticism that he’s often casting actresses who also appear on FHM covers as his spouses or love interests, the casting of Queen Latifah is a bold choice. I’m not saying that she’s not beautiful. But the chemistry between her and Sandler make them feel like a real couple, even though Teresa comes off as the “wife on the phone” role in some scenes.
I actually liked the choice for Vince to have a shaved head and a full beard. This look along with Foster’s keen acting turn Vince into a complete spoiled trust-fund douchebag. Heidi Garner plays Kat Merrick, Rex’s daughter, but doesn’t give her much to do but pop up in a few scenes. And that’s kinda the movie’s biggest flaw. Most of the woman roles seem only to exist just to do something for the men roles. But it’s not too much of a flaw that it can be overlooked.
Overall, this is a wonderful sports comedy/drama that hopefully will cause Sandler like Stanley to re-evaluate what he wants to do and choose a different path.
What do you think? Please comment.