Years before “Uncut Gems,” you could see Adam Sandler was a good actor. He’d taken a step out of the ha-ha zone as early as “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) – and going back as far as “The Wedding Singer” (1998), which he made after only two of his knockabout big-hit farces (“Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore”), he was already displaying the desire to add a splash of real-world nuance to his comic antics. And let’s not be snobbish about it: It’s not as if Sandler, in his way, didn’t give a helluva performance in “The Waterboy” (the greatest of his stupido / smart “classics”). That said, his performance in “Uncut Gems” as an addled, self-destructive spieler-chiseler-gambler who works in New York’s Diamond District felt cut from a different gem – it belonged in a Scorsese movie. It was, to me, the best performance of 2019, and from that moment on it was no longer quite accurate to say Adam Sandler was a good actor. He’d become a great actor.
“Hustle,” a heart-in-the-throat basketball drama that drops on Netflix on June 8, features Sandler’s first major performance since “Uncut Gems.” Given the extraordinary edge and daring of that Safdie brothers film, the new one may sound like a pointed return to more traditional Sandler fare. And in many ways it is; it’s a conventionally uplifting, family-friendly sports flick. Yet even in a movie like this one, the Sandler we see is a transformed actor with more than a trace of his “Uncut” flair. “Hustle” is fiction, but it often feels like a true-life drama (thanks, in part, to the extraordinary roster of NBA players and associates who appear as themselves), and that dovetails with the new authenticity of Adam Sandler, who has learned to pour every bit of himself into a role.
Swathed in a mopey dark beard that brings out the gawkiness of his grin, he plays Stanley Sugarman, a veteran scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who still loves the game but is literally sick and tired of his life on the road, jetting around the world to look for the next breakout hoops star. Stanley gets put up in five-star hotels, but they all blend together, and whatever country he’s in he ODs on American junk food. He’s a morosely incurious business traveler, dutifully scouting the games but otherwise killing time, spending more weeks and months than he’d like away from his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and teenage daughter.
One night in Spain, he wanders over to a street court thronged with spectators. Most of them are there to watch Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, of the Utah Jazz), a towering construction worker who plays defense like a speeding wall and dunks like a hydraulic drill. Within minutes, Stanley knows that he’s found a superstar-in-the-rough. But can he convince his boss (Ben Foster), the dickish corporate owner of the 76ers, who has just taken over the team following the death of his own father (Robert Duvall), who was Stanley’s mentor? And can Bo, an unpolished talent and congenital hothead with no formal basketball training and an assault conviction on his record, find the right stuff – and the coolness of mind – to go up against seasoned NBA players? All that may be easier said than done.
“Hustle” is a buddy drama built around the slow-growing bond between Stanley the mouthy mensch and Bo the brooding, taciturn hoops-wizard-in-a-strange-land. At different points, it may remind you of sports movies from the formulaic Jon Hamm rouser “Million Dollar Arm” to “Jerry Maguire.” When Stanley trains Bo by having him jog, day after day, up a residential hill in Philly, the movie even nods to “Rocky.”
Yet “Hustle” has its own squarely satisfying and, at moments, enthralling texture. There’s plenty of basketball, but there is no big game and, in fact, no team-vs.-team game – it’s all workouts and tryouts and the showcase basketball decathlon known as the NBA Draft Combine, which the director, Jeremiah Zagar, shoots with invigorating verve and skill. “Hustle” doesn’t rewrite any rules, but the film’s wholesome seduction is that you believe what you’re seeing – in part because of the presence of players from the aging legend Dr. J to Trae Young to Kyle Lowry and several dozen more. But also because Sandler plays Stanley with an inner sadness, a blend of weariness and resilience, and a stubborn faith in the game that leaves you moved, stoked, and utterly convinced.