‘Hustle’ Review: Put Me In, N.B.A. Executive!
“Hustle,” a terrific crowd-pleaser about the N.B.A. draft, knows that basketball is a sport of long arms and longer odds. Fewer than 500 players are in the N.B.A. at any given time; gathered together, the players who have ascended to its ranks since it was founded in 1946 would not even come close to filling up Madison Square Garden. In the movie, Adam Sandler, a real-life devotee of the game, plays a weary scout for the Philadelphia 76ers named Stanley Sugerman who has spent his life sizing up potential rookies by their height, wingspan, speed and emotional fortitude. After Stanley stumbles on a lively streetball game in Mallorca, the Spanish island, he impulsively stakes his career (and his sanguine home life with his wife, played by Queen Latifah) on a raw talent who excels in only two qualities of the four.
Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) is a gangly construction worker with tattooed limbs that seem to be everywhere all at once, like the tentacles of an aggressive octopus. In real life, Hernangómez is a power forward for the Utah Jazz. Onscreen, he’s a breezy, quietly charismatic presence who allows Sandler to do the bellowing, then delivers a punchline right to the ribs. Cruz and Stanley’s mental and physical preparations for the draft are an uphill struggle in the literal sense, with Stanley shaking his prospect awake at 4 a.m. to run the streets of Philadelphia while shouting obscenities at him to thicken his skin. (Here, love means translating insults into Cruz’s native Spanish.)
Jeremiah Zagar, who directed “Hustle,” cut his teeth making documentaries. Neither he nor the screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters romanticize the billion-dollar business of professional sports. They blot away any sheen of sentimentality. Success is tenuous; one mistake can derail a dream. Zagar keeps the cinematographer Zak Mulligan’s camera hand-held and light-footed. It casually clocks the rainbow of Lamborghinis outside an arena parking lot without going in for a belabored close-up. The naturalistic style shifts gears only in a centerpiece sequence that gamely tries to outdo “Rocky,” with a training montage so aerobically exhausting that it pauses halfway through, as if to catch its breath.
Zagar’s real achievement is drawing strong performances from the many nonprofessional actors who join Sandler and Hernangómez in the cast. The glowering N.B.A. goofball Boban Marjanovic, of the Dallas Mavericks, gets in several good quips as an aspirant who shaves a decade off his age, and the player-turned-commentator Kenny Smith capably handles a sizable part as a high-powered agent. Anthony Edwards, the Minnesota Timberwolves’s 20-year-old rising star known as Ant-Man (himself the No. 1 draft pick in 2020), excels in the riskiest role as a trash-talking villain who deserves to have a sweat sock shoved in his mouth. Oddly, it is the well-regarded actor Ben Foster (“Leave No Trace”) who is left dangling as a front-office nepotism hire who flails angrily to hide that he’s out of his depth. Hobbling Foster with a caricature this thinly sketched is a flagrant foul.
Rated R for locker-room banter in two languages. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. Watch on Netflix.