Every now and again, Adam Sandler remembers he can act. Before it became a social media punchline, 2019’s Uncut Gems contained the best performance of the comedy giant’s career, almost making you forget all about the hideous Netflix comedies that have made him millions. Happily, this week sees the arrival of more serious Sandler in sports drama Hustle.
He plays Stanley Sugarman, an NBA scout whose dreams of coaching have been dulled by too many plane rides and missed opportunities. While on a trip to Spain, he discovers a rough but talented street player (Juancho Hernangómez) who he believes could be the next star. However, the pair have to fight against a corporate structure that doesn’t take kindly to underdogs.
Produced by basketball goliath Lebron James, the film clings to the conventions of sports movies. There’s plenty of big speeches about doing whatever it takes, lots of setbacks, and, of course, training montages set to a rousing soundtrack. It’s nothing you won’t have seen before, but the talent puts personality into the mix.
Sandler’s strength, in comedy and drama, is his everyman nature. Where Uncut Gems saw him bouncing around the screen, here he’s much more subdued. He introduces Stanley at the point of giving up, and slowly shows him growing in belief, even when the odds pile up. He keeps pace with thespians like Robert Duvall and Ben Foster (playing the suits he has to convince), and does much of the heavy lifting in his scenes with real life NBA star Hernangómez. Oscar winner Queen Latifah isn’t as well utilised playing Stanley’s wife, only really there to cheer him on or remind him what’s at stake.
Still, Hustle is a pleasing sporting drama that does enough in the big moments to get you invested, even if it’s all rather predictable. If nothing else, it’s proof that there’s a lot more to Sandler than silly voices and toilet jokes.