Adam Sandler never makes it look easy. He’s never mastered the art of “selling” his various screen characters’ emotions or verbal explosions as actual changes in mood. The inexpressive — now middle-aged — face never quite matches the bellowing he’s always used for comic effect and now trots out for dramatic shocks.
But put him in the right milieu, “sports,” without trying to make us believe he’s a jock or dad-bodied ex-jock, and pair him up with Queen Latifah, his most-perfectly-matched leading lady, and the Sandman isn’t half bad.
“Hustle” is blandly predictable “feel good” sports drama in the tradition of “The Scout,” “Trouble with the Curve,” “The Air Up There” and yes, “Jerry Maguire.” Sandler plays an NBA scout who goes all in on a long shot, with bad to mixed results until things take that predictable turn towards “a Hollywood ending” that middling screenplays always deliver.
But it’s a pleasant peek inside the search for talent ready for the NBA, even in its more far-fetched moments. And if the one-liners feel more stale than usual here, at least it’s on purpose this time. The jokes go with the (dad) bod.
Stanley Sugerman labors behind the scenes for the Philadelphia 76ers, checking out overseas prospects, less known European and Asian talent, always with an eye for “that missing piece” for the franchise that his longtime mentor (Robert Duvall) owns.
That means he clashes with the old man’s son (Ben Foster), often as not. But Stanley has to keep his cool if he ever wants to finish that long journey from onetime Tempe U. hoopster to having a coaching seat on the bench next to Doc Rivers.
He’s oh-so-close to landing that gig, and thus getting to spend more time at home with wife Teresa (Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Elizabeth Hull) when the old man dies, and son Vincent (Foster, not his best work) hands down the new edict.
“You’re valuable as a coach,” the new owner declares, “you’re indispensable as a scout.”
Another bag packed, another trip to Europe, only to discover that a top Spanish prospect is sitting out the game Stanley came to see. No worries. There’s a pick-up game on a neighborhood court where this construction worker/hustler (Juancho Hernangomez of the Utah Jazz) is clomping around in boots, blocking shots like a Spanish Sultan of Swat.
Has Stanley found “the one?” Is his Spanglish good enough to tell the kid what he does for a living, and what he sees in him…without Bo Cruz getting the wrong idea?
“You’re a fantasy for a guy like me!”
Yes, it’s a Happy Madison Production, with flattery confused for homoerotic come-ons, “titty” jokes about his daughter and the similar vulgarity.
When the home office doesn’t buy Stanley’s “The New Freak” and “unicorn” labels for “The Cruz Missile,” the fading scout with a troubled past takes the big gamble on his own with this gigantic kid with tattoos, a daughter and a past of his own.
So we’ve got a redemption story set in The Association, underscored with old school hip hop and littered with NBA figures, past and present.
Credit screenwriters Will Fetters (“A Star is Born,” “The Lucky One”) and (first screenwriting credit) Taylor Materene for at least trying to take a few detours on the well-worn path this tale travels.
But you know the sports movie drill. It includes drills. A character gets knocked down, and launches into the training montage, with “Rocky” references and “He’s in your head” coaching to get this short-tempered Spaniard ready for “The Combine” where he can showcase his talent.
Sandler’s riffing may be half-hearted, but is much in evidence, because even if he’s lost his fastball, this script’s banter needs a little juicing. The kid needs to steel himself for NBA level trash talk.
“You know what’s crazy? A grown man hurting another grown man’s feelings…” The kid’s nemesis “said some mean words to you and you wanted to take your ball and go home.”
The actual production figured a cavalcade of cameos — Barkley and Shaq and Trae Young and Dirk and Dan — would cover a sea of scripted and acted shortcomings.
They don’t. Sandler’s in a role tailor made for him, and he still lets us see the wheels turning and the effort it takes to make this guy feel real. And for all its half-hearted twists, there’s rarely a minute’s doubt as to where this “Hustle” will end up.
Rating: R, profanity
Cast: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangomez, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Julius Erving, Doc Rivers, Dirk Nowitzi, Dan Patrick and Robert Duvall
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, scripted by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:58