Hustle is middlebrow inspo cinema that fails to channel the best of either Sandler’s juvenalia comedy or his dramatic talent — just one giant cliché extended to feature length.
Here we are, a year and some change after Adam Sandler’s last Neflix-funded excursion into lowbrow humor — the wonderful Hubie Halloween — with the ever-devoted Sandler-hive patiently waiting during the interim for the next funny-voiced creation from the Happy Madison team. Questions such as “Will he be kicked in the nuts, or will he kick someone else in the nuts?” have been keeping us up at night, with a quick “How many of his friends will appear in this one?” as a nice follow-up for fellow insomniacs. However, since the Sandman’s popularity has reached a critical peak these days with dramatic vehicles like The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems, it might be (rather unfortunately for the rest of us) some time before we get another straight-up comedy from Sandler and his ilk. There can be the occasional return to form, but from here on out, we’re in Prestige-Era Sandler; no more Grown Ups flicks or Jack and Jill sequels, at least for the immediate future. Instead, we can look forward to mawkish muck like Hustle, which occupies the nebulous space of “sports dramedy” (which usually means that the dramatic elements aren’t that serious, and the comedy isn’t particularly funny) and carries a distinct air of respectability at every turn — and since this is still a Netflix production, it also bears an ugly digital sheen that further elucidates how little faith they have in anyone actually trekking out to a theater for viewing purposes. For the critics who claimed Sandler was the antichrist for the last few decades, this is a movie explicitly made for you.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a name that phonetically invokes Sandy Wexler but is really meant to conjure up Jerry Maguire. He’s a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who’s tasked with finding “the next big thing” for the team, endlessly traveling the globe with the hope that one day, once locating said “big thing,” he can finally be promoted to coach. After a few busts in Spain, he spots construction worker Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, real-life power forward for the Utah Jazz) “hustling” a group of local basketball players — the double entendre of the title is about the only humorous thing going on here — and brings him back to the states. Along the way, the two will learn a thing or two about themselves, family, and the love of the game — and if reading that sentence didn’t make you projectile vomit across the room, then maybe you’ll get a thing or two out of Hustle.
You certainly won’t be getting any interesting creative choices from director Jeremiah Zagar or co-writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, who haven’t met a cliché they wouldn’t wholeheartedly embrace for the sake of narrative efficiency. There’s a ten-minute plus training montage, a doting stay-at-home wife (a thankless Queen Latifah), some economic pressures that are acknowledged but never properly addressed — Sugarman up and quits his job at one point, with zero tangible fallout from the decision — and a whole lot of cameos that amount to little other than some sidebar ogling (including Allen Iverson, God bless his soul). There’s an interesting meta-commentary to be found in how Sandler approaches the material with such a modest mindset, tenderly embracing his older age with a litany of self-deprecating fat jokes that he would have cracked thirty years previous; things have finally come full circle now, so it seems. But even that element is sanded down until nothing of any real bite remains, probably out of fear of offending anyone who might relate too heavily with being over 50 and that schlubby. But being “real” isn’t Hustle’s M.O.: Co-produced by LeBron James and given the NBA’s complete blessing, the bleak realities of the league and “making it” are barely ever mentioned, just some phony-sounding lip-service that hard work will eventually pay off. Anything else would, perhaps, intrude too excessively on the strictly feel-good qualities of the film’s tepid screenplay, but anyone who actually believes the shit that’s peddled here is the one who’s truly being hustled.