There are many great basketball films. He Got Game is a gorgeous, fractured American ode; Hoosiers is grade-A small-town corn; Hoop Dreams is one of the most devastating documentaries ever made; Above the Rim achieves, in its deep-fried campiness, a kind of truth that something more sober cannot; White Men Can't Jump features one of the greatest "buddy movie" pairings of its decade. This list, which definitely does not include either Space Jam entry, could continue. And it appears Adam Sandler has become interested in scaling it. He is in good shape to do so if he keeps acting in the likes of Uncut Gems and Hustle.
Roughly perceived as bookends to the world re-making tragedy of the Coronavirus epidemic, the two basketball-centric outputs feature two different kinds of strivers, differently obsessed with the sport. Howard Ratner of 2019's Uncut Gems is an irredeemable, madcap gambler, screaming about parlays and doubling down just as a nation of sportswatchers was about to do the same, with sports betting apps on the eve of their explosion when the movie was released. Ratner's seedy alliance with Kevin Garnett, formed by the magical aspirations fueled by a precious opal stone, aids him through the murkily illegal waters of overlapping underworlds, where we see through unique visual and audio compositions how the glory on the internationally televised court can trickle down to the mercurial ultimatums of desperate everyday men, drunk on their own fantastical sauce.
Something much more sympathetic and traditional arrives in the shape of Netflix's Hustle, available to stream as of last week. A hearty extra slice of basketball content for those sick for the sport during the longer breaks between NBA Finals games, the movie features Sandler as a Philadelphia 76ers scout named Stanley Sugerman. Sugerman has had a ho-hum journeyman career, largely hoping to become a coach as he's sent around the world to look at young ballers, which has hurt the bonds between him and his family. Just as he is finally assigned his dream job, he's sent back overseas by a villainous young first-time owner—played pitch-perfectly by a bald, goateed Ben Foster, one of Hollywood's more understated nasty men.
Sugerman ends up finding something in Spain: an unknown big man named Bo Cruz, played by Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangomez, modestly dominating public courts in a tank top and a pair of construction boots. Like Ratner does to Garnett, Sugerman hitches his wagon to Cruz. When he risks much of his professional credit to fly the young mystery box prospect from his hardscrabble Spanish ghetto to Philadelphia for a showcase scrimmage, he ends up willing to take it a step further by defiantly quitting his shrunken post with the Sixers, and go all in on preparing Cruz for the NBA Combine. Looming large is the presence of Kermit Wilts, played with a delightful poison tongue by one of sport's biggest young stars in the real world, Anthony Edwards. It would be hard to overstate how comfortably Edwards exists on the screen, where he shows a likely familiar fluency with smiling for the media camera and saying hyper-creatively terrible things to his peers the second it can no longer hear or see him.
When Wilts first gets under Cruz's skin, the movie launches into its most technically accomplished portions. As Sugerman trains Cruz, you may find yourself wondering whether it would be an issue for you if an entire movie was composed as a montage. The pacing and cinematography of these drills and motivational dialogue are wonderful, and made all the better by a Dan Deacon score that channels the pastoral grandiosity of Aaron Copland's classically orchestral He Got Game soundtrack into a refreshing electric contemporary. Everything is made to feel like an epiphany when Hustle locks into its most loving section, a heartfelt paean to The Grind.
Sandler is of course comfortably within his bag as a pathos-rich, trash-talking old man who can't quit on the sport or this young kid, but it's the surprisingly naturalistic Hernangomez who takes the movie to levels you didn't see coming. He is sweet and loveable, but also believable every time his humble disposition veers suddenly into ego and rage. He is effective and endearing, too, as a childish fish out of water, ordering insane amounts of impractical food and running up his room service bill when he first comes to America (the Joel Embiid likeness, in these moments, will not be lost on more hardcore fans).
It is a great credit to director Jeremiah Zagar that this doesn't lapse into cloying schmaltz, especially given the well-known framework for sports tales in Philadelphia—he finds something new for the screen in that old city's well-worn infrastructure, makes it fresh to us. A vigorous challenge to the tropes of sports movies, generally, is taken on as well; "everyone loves a redemption story," Sugerman's old college teammate, now a super-agent played by Kenny Smith, tells him in during one of the more grueling dips in his and Cruz's journey. "Some people don't get one," Sugerman replies. "They just keep falling." Ultimately, Hustle will give you what you want and expect from a sports movie, but it makes you take more punches than usual to get there.
As a collision between a movie production and the roving entertainment complex that is the contemporary NBA, Hustle is a decidedly post-modern product, existing somewhere between advertisement for the league and true cinema. It knows this about itself, and finds interesting life on that specific front. The many cameos by NBA celebrities can be hit-or-miss, but the world-building that they accumulate into is a particular thing, well-done and rarely seen. And the uncanniness of seeing Edwards' star rise on a streaming platform right as it does on the court is analogous only to what Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardway did in Blue Chips, and then what Ray Allen achieved in the same odd liminal space betwixt Hollywood and the hardwood in He Got Game. Like those movies, Hustle is a worthy time capsule, and a must-see for anyone who loves the game.