Years before “Uncut Gems,” you could tell Adam Sandler was a good actor. He had stepped out of the ha-ha zone as early as “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) – and back to “The Wedding Singer” (1998), which he did after just two of his knockabout pranks at hits (“Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore”), he already displayed a desire to add a touch of real-world nuance to his comedic antics. And let’s not be snobby about it: It’s not like Sandler, in his own way, didn’t give a stellar performance in “The Waterboy” (the greatest of his stupido/smart “classics”) . That said, his performance in “Uncut Gems” as a confused, self-destructive spieler-chiseler-player who works in New York’s Diamond District felt cut from a different gem – he belonged in a Scorsese movie. . It was, for me, the best performance of 2019, and from that point on, it wasn’t entirely accurate to say that Adam Sandler was a good actor. He would become a great actor.
“Hustle,” a jaw-dropping basketball drama hitting Netflix June 8, features Sandler’s first major performance since “Uncut Gems.” Given the extraordinary edge and boldness of this Safdie Brothers film, the new one may feel like a sharp throwback to more traditional Sandler fare. And in many ways, it is; it’s a traditional, family-friendly sports film. Yet even in a film like this, 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 real-life drama (thanks, in part, to the extraordinary roster of NBA players and associates who appear as themselves), and that ties in with the new authenticity of Adam Sandler, who has learned to pour every bit of himself into a role.
Wrapped in a mopey black beard that brings out the goofiness of his smile, he plays Stanley Sugarman, a veteran Philadelphia 76ers scout who still loves the game but is literally fed up with his life on the road, traveling the world to look for the next hoops star. Stanley is housed in five-star hotels, but they all mix, and no matter what country he’s in, he overdoses on American junk food. He’s a moody, incurious business traveler, dutifully scrutinizing games but otherwise killing time, spending more weeks and months than he’d like away from his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and daughter. teenager.
One night in Spain, he walks through a street yard crowded with onlookers. Most of them are there to watch Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, of the Utah Jazz), a hulking construction worker who plays defense like a wall of speed and dunks like a hydraulic drill. Within minutes, Stanley knows he’s found a superstar in the raw. But will he be able to convince his boss (Ben Foster), the corporate asshole 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 Bo, a raw talent and congenital hothead with no formal basketball training and an assault conviction on his record, can he find the right things — and the nerve — to take on seasoned NBA players? All of this may be easier said than done.
“Hustle” is a buddy drama built around the slowly developing bond between Stanley the talkative mensch and Bo the brooding, taciturn hoops-wizard-in-a-strange-land. At different times, it may remind you of sports movies ranging from Jon Hamm’s “Million Dollar Arm” to “Jerry Maguire.” When Stanley trains Bo by running him, day after day, up a residential hill in Philadelphia, the film even nods to “Rocky.”
Still, “Hustle” has its own downright satisfying and, at times, thrilling texture. There’s a lot of basketball out there, but there’s no big game and, in fact, no team vs. team game – it’s all practice and tryouts and the basketball decathlon known as from NBA Draft Combine, which director, Jeremiah Zagar, shoots with invigorating verve and skill. “Hustle” doesn’t rewrite any rules, but the wholesome seduction of the film is that you believe what you see – in part because of the presence of players from aging legend Dr. J to Trae Young to Kyle Lowry and several dozen others. . But also because Sandler plays Stanley with an inner sadness, a mixture of weariness and resilience, and a stubborn faith in the acting that leaves you feeling moved, delighted, and utterly convinced.