Sandler’s Got Game

The Sandman is a dramatic knockout in the kind-of predictable basketball melodrama ‘Hustle’

Adam Sandler is more compelling in dramatic roles than comedic. There, I said it. Hustle, a solemn sports movie– somewhere in the wheelhouse of Jerry Maguire and Last Chance U–is more evidence of this.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a former college player with a dark past turned NBA scout. (Hollywood seems to be running out of names. Jerry Maguire’s unforgettable villain agent was named Bob Sugar.) Unfortunately, Sugerman’s job for the Philadelphia 76er’s requires him to log more miles than George Clooney in Up In The Air and be away from his wife, an under-used Queen Latifah, and their likable but underachieving teenaged daughter, an aspiring filmmaker. As he medicates on an obscene diet of fast food, Sugerman yearns for a coaching position, so he can have more family time. Be warned: Sandler’s paunchy physique is a running punch line, albeit a somber one. There’s humor in Hustle, but not many laughs. Hustle’s script stays clear of commenting on Sandler’s graying beard, which makes him look downright biblical.

Ultimately, Sugerman becomes a savior to an equally downcast Bo Cruz, a talented but thin-skinned playground unicorn from Spain. Inexplicably, Cruz, who’s played by NBA player Juancho Hernangomez, hoops in construction boots, and no one has discovered him prior to Sugerman’s arrival. The former is Cruz’s most colorful detail. Cruz can slam and swat shots with the best of ‘em, boots or not, but his dialogue, which is, ah, succinct, is wanting.  Hustle trusts Juancho to deliver the rock but not Shakespearean or even He Got Game moments. However, there’s a running joke about Cruz’s expensive porn habit.

Hustle gets points for not being too predictable. There are twists alongside plenty of the obligatory sports movie training montages, which Hustle manages to make fresh. Still, a training montage is a training montage. No surprise, Hustle, which takes place in Philadelphia, references Rocky. Instead of running the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cruz runs an unforgiving hill as Sandler rides along in a car with a stopwatch. Before one early morning run, Sugerman gifts Bo a pair of Kobe Bryant’s sneakers.

As expected, Hustle has plenty of scenes of men doing spectacular things with a basketball, providing unbridled joy and perhaps some sort of salvation to hundreds of onlookers. In the age of YouTube, however, these scenes might feel redundant.

In true Sandler fashion, an overabundance of real-life basketball legend cameos–Dr. J. Allen Iverson, Jay Wright, to name a few–will make your head spin. Sometimes less is more. Please reference He Got Game. Former NBAer turned commentator Kenny Smith has a legitimate role, playing Sugerman’s best friend, and he acquits himself well.

No doubt, from the opening tip to the final whistle, the bittersweet Hustle is Sandler’s game. He scores aplenty, but Hustle is no knockout.

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

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