Adam Sandler has long been a basketball superfan, so it’s a little surprising that passion has only recently started to bleed into his movies. The terrific Uncut Gems saw the Sandman play a jeweller who places one crazy bet after another on the semi-finals round of the NBA playoffs while trying to reclaim an expensive gem from real-life NBA star Kevin Garnett. And there are even more basketball bonafides in the much less stressful Hustle, which is still enjoyable, despite its formulaic storytelling.
Indeed, all the standard sports drama tropes are dutifully checked off in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay — from multiple training montages to speeches about pushing through adversity. But Hustle’s stylistic flourishes add some welcome spice to the recipe. Dan Deacon’s electronic score is creative and suitably rousing at various points, and whether it’s on the streets or in indoor arenas, the crisp camerawork and smart editing captures basketball in all its beauty. Director Jeremiah Zagar ensures that the love of the game and its culture is evident throughout, with cameos from Philly legends Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving and Allen Iverson lending the film authenticity.
Sandler switches between levity and more emotionally weighty material with ease.
Much of this would be moot if Sandler was as unengaged as he sometimes can be, but he switches between levity and more emotionally weighty material with ease here, as a man desperately trying not to add to his list of regrets. He’s ably supported by NBA star Hernangómez, who is unsurprisingly great on the court while also nailing Cruz’s naive vulnerability when the focus switches from basketball to family. Together, they’re a partnership who are easy to root for.
There’s so much working in Hustle’s favour that it’s a bit of a shame the film decides to go a more predictable, crowd-pleasing route at almost every turn, especially in a final act that momentarily teases something a little more subversive. It means the end result doesn’t quite belong in the upper echelon of sports movies with the likes of Creed and Love & Basketball, but NBA fans in particular will be satisfied with the heart and talent on display. When it comes to the Sandman and basketball, he’s a perfect 2-of-2 from the field.