Hustle opens in Serbia. Stanley Sugarman (Adam Sandler) is being led through dark back hallways to a gym. There, he finds a bona fide big man, a 7-footer who doesn’t just block a shot, he palms the basketball and slams it on the other end. For Sugarman, talent scout of the Philadelphia 76ers, this is a good sight. Unfortunately, this prospect is too old to qualify for the draft. Sugarman crosses him off the list and moves on to a series of other not-quite-good-enough international players.
The 7′ 4″ Serbian prospect from that opening scene is real-life NBA player Boban Marjanovic (the player also appeared in a memorable cameo in John Wick: Chapter Three). Hustle is populated with numerous NBA figures, from owners like Marc Cuban to players like Trae Young. The film’s second lead is Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangomez. And the film is co-produced by LeBron James’ production company SpringHill. This is a basketball film with the DNA of the NBA baked right into it. For better and worse.
Sugarman earns himself a promotion to assistant coach, which could finally balance out his home and work life. When the 76ers owner (Robert Duvall) dies suddenly, though, his son (Ben Foster) takes over and puts Sugarman back on the road in search of the Sixers’ next draft pick. Sugarman finds that prospect in an unlikely place, not in an international stadium but in a park court pickup game. Hernangomez plays this prospect, who immediately shows himself to be a unicorn, a once-in-a-generation talent.
Hernangomez represents the best case scenario for putting athletes into acting roles. While some player cameos in Hustle are, understandably, visibly awkward, as you can see the self-consciousness in their performances, Hernangomez gives a quiet and natural turn. Alongside Minnesota Timberwolves player Anthony Edwards, who portrays a high draft stock rival, Hernangomez provides emotional stakes on the court. Off the court, he works well off Sandler to produce humor and heart.
These performances, from Hernangomez and Sandler and Queen Latifah (with honorable mentions to Edwards and Kenny “The Jet” Smith), make this otherwise formulaic film charming and watchable. The film’s story presents nothing novel. Hernangomez’s Bo Cruz is an out-of-nowhere talent, a diamond in the rough who is nevertheless viewed as a long shot because of his anonymity to the league and a specific incident in his past. His story is an underdog one. He has a fatal flaw that keeps him from immediately winning over the league. He has to undergo training appropriate for montage sequences in order to prepare for the high level of NBA play. Sugarman, meanwhile, invests literally everything he has on Cruz simply for the reason that he believes in the kid.
It’s all been done before. But it is executed cleanly and convinces you to invest in the characters just as Sugarman invests in Cruz. And, because the basketball sequences are performed by actual top-level NBA talent, the basketball is genuinely exciting when it matters the most. It is a fluffy film, a feel-good story that is not interested in challenging our preconceived notions about the sports film genre. And sometimes that just hits the spot. Given its existence on Netflix, it is perfect for a light watch between Finals games.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)