Adam Sandler is getting old.

That’s no slight against him, old age comes for us all (if we’re lucky). But it matters in the particular case of Adam Sandler because he built his entire career on his manchild persona. Close to thirty freaking years later, he’s still better known for Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison more than anything else. Hell, his production company is literally named “Happy Madison Productions”.

Even after his ’90s heyday, Sandler kept churning out the likes of Anger Management, 50 First Dates, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and a library of other juvenile comedies he exec-produced, all to diminishing returns. Things finally hit a nadir about ten years ago, with the double-whammy of Jack & Jill and That’s My Boy in 2012. He got a bit more mileage out of voice-over work, but Eight Crazy Nights proved to be a catastrophic misfire and the Hotel Transylvania films only barely limped along until the COVID years. He got a multi-picture Netflix deal, but the announcement of the deal turned out to make a bigger impact than the pictures themselves. (Par for the course with Netflix, really.)

In any case, Sandler’s schtick had gotten old and he had gotten too old to keep it going. He had to find some way of aging artistically, a tall order after 25 years firmly embedded in the national consciousness as an immature clown. Sure, Sandler didn’t necessarily have to stick with comedy — he’d famously tried more dramatic fare with Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, though neither of them was quite enough to change trajectory. But then Uncut Gems happened, and this was somehow enough to sell the mainstream on the notion that Sandler was a viable dramatic actor.

But did it, though?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve gone on record stating that Uncut Gems is overrated. Secondly, Adam Sandler is fascinating to me because he’s a pop culture punching bag, we’ve all been collectively been shitting on his movies for the past twenty years, but I absolutely guarantee you that it will be a national day of mourning when he dies. We’ll be hearing from so many distraught fans who thought he was an underappreciated genius, and even the people who genuinely hate Adam Sandler won’t be happy when he dies.

Because as deeply offensive as Sandler’s films could be, there was never any sense of malice to the crude humor. Sandler doesn’t get into any legal trouble, he doesn’t have any major controversies or scandals, and everything I’ve ever heard about Sandler makes him sound like the nicest guy. It certainly helps that our cultural nostalgia for the simpler time of the ’90s dovetails perfectly with the childlike mentality of Sandler’s films from the era.

The point being that on some collective subconscious level, it’s like we want Adam Sandler to succeed. We can only get so angry at someone so obviously harmless, and we want good things to happen to good people. So every time I hear someone flap their lips about Sandler taking on a “serious” role, I at once hear a bittersweet acknowledgment that Adam Sander is getting too old to keep his comedy going, with undertones of optimism that he’ll flourish in this new lane. That and a sense of diminished expectations, like a dramatic performance from him is really good by the standards of what he’s made previously. Put it all together and I worry that we’re going a little easy on him.

So here’s Hustle (2022), exec-produced by Sandler as a dramatic starring vehicle. I’ll probably be the first one to say it’s a better film and a better lead performance than Uncut Gems, but I’m still not convinced that Sandler can hack it as an Oscar-worthy dramatic actor. A good one, perhaps, but not a great one. Let’s take it from the top.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a college basketball sensation whose career was cut tragically short for reasons I won’t get into. Long story short, Stan went on to a long and respectable career in the NBA, but off the court. When the movie opens, Stan has spent however many years as a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, traveling all over the world to look through hundreds of duds and wannabes for every genuine article who might actually turn out to be the next basketball superstar worth drafting.

Trouble is, Stan’s getting too old to keep up with all the international travel. The hotel room service and airplane food are taking their toll on his health, and the travel is putting a nasty strain on his family (his wife is capably played by Queen Latifah, with Jordan Hull on hand as their sassy teenage daughter). Even worse, the team’s owner (Rex Merrick, played by Robert Duvall in what’s basically a speaking cameo) dies at the 15-minute mark, leaving his asshole son (Vince Merrick, played by Ben Foster) in charge. So now Stan has to work his ass off even harder to find a player good enough that the new owner will let Stan settle down with a more stable assistant coaching gig.

Enter Bo Cruz (newcomer Juancho Hernangomez), a young man in Spain working as a construction worker to support his mom and his young daughter (respectively played by Maria Botto and Ainhoa Pillet). Bo also happens to be a basketball phenomenon, playing street matches to hustle amateur athletes out of their money. Stan finds out about this and coaxes Bo to the States, where he proceeds to coach Bo up to an NBA-level top-tier talent.

Right up front, I’ve got to talk about Adam Sandler’s voice. There’s no getting around it, Sandler’s voice is instantly recognizable, like a kind of sing-song squawk. It’s a huge part of what made his babbling hyperactive schtick work back in the old days. That voice serves him superbly well as a comedian, but as a dramatic actor… let’s just say there’s a reason the late Gilbert Gottfried never tried to pass himself off as an Oscar contender. The resemblance is particularly uncanny when Sandler gets to shouting — I’m sorry, but there’s no way to take the character seriously when he’s angry enough to start shouting in that ridiculous voice.

That being said, Stan is much more likeable, which immediately makes the character a better lead and a better use of Adam Sandler’s skill set than what we got in Uncut Gems. Sandler’s comedy chops do a lot to make the character charming, but Sandler also brings a kind of mature weariness to the role. It all comes together for a lead character who’s instantly sympathetic, even — often especially — when he’s acting like a total bastard. It’s elegant work.

Even so, I honestly hate to see Sandler taking up all the oxygen here because the rest of the cast is awesome. Ben Foster plays an antagonist who’s easy to hate, but without ever making the character cartoonishly evil or flagrantly incompetent. Queen Latifah more than holds her own as a romantic/emotional counterweight opposite Sandler, ditto for Jordan Hull. Robert Duvall is tragically underutilized, but the film needed someone who could make a titanic impression immediately, so mission accomplished. I was terribly disappointed to see Heidi Gardner get so little to do in the role of Vince’s sister. Likewise, I’m upset that I didn’t even know Jaleel White was in this picture until I looked it up on IMDb!

What’s even more impressive is all the basketball talents in the cast. Juancho Hernangomez is a power forward recently traded to the Utah Jazz, and his debut starring performance here is rock-solid. We’ve also got Anthony Edwards (shooting guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves) on hand in an antagonist role, and Edwards tears it up as a character who’s so much fun to hate. That’s not even getting started on all the active and retired players who play bit parts or cameo as themselves. The list goes on and on, it’s staggering. Of course, the biggest NBA name here is exec producer LeBron James, who strangely didn’t make an onscreen appearance that I could see (though he does get a shout-out in the dialogue). I’m sure it also helped to have a script co-written by Taylor Materne, who worked on the scripts for NBA 2K19 and 2K20.

But as far as I’m concerned, the real star here is director Jeremiah Zagar. For those who aren’t familiar, Zagar started out as a documentary filmmaker before making his feature debut with the heartrending work of cinematic abstract art called We the Animals. With that debut feature, Zagar firmly showed his affinity for working-class families and his dazzling skill at delivering palpably immersive drama. While Zagar never goes to the mind-melting extent of his prior work, he is nonetheless superbly capable of getting us into the mental and emotional state of our lead character.

Put that together with Zagar’s expertise as a documentary filmmaker and you’ve got basketball sequences that are utterly spellbinding. The camerawork, the choreography, the editing, the performances… everything about the basketball games in this movie works supremely well to deliver compelling character drama and adrenaline-pumping competition. That’s not even getting started on the film’s centerpiece, a strong contender for the greatest training montage in cinema history.

Trouble is, beneath all the razzle-dazzle, there’s not much new here. The plot is your bog-standard rags-to-riches story, hitting every predictable beat along the way. The film isn’t even shy about this — the story is set in Philadelphia and they explicitly name-check Rocky Balboa, for God’s sake. That said, I will give the filmmakers fair praise for making our up-and-coming athlete a white guy out of Spain — we’ve seen too many of these movies fall into the “white savior” trope, and I’m grateful that isn’t an issue here.

On a final note, I have to address a significant issue with the climax. While Bo’s character arc is beautifully handled, I’m sorry I can’t say the same for Stanley’s plotline. The process of getting Stan his coveted NBA coaching gig is pathetically truncated, to the point where it hinges entirely on some unknown event that happens entirely offscreen for unknown reasons. And it involves a character who only got maybe two minutes of screen time in the first act and hadn’t been seen since. For all intents and purposes, it’s practically a goddamn deus ex machina.

As with so many high-profile cinematic offerings from Netflix, Hustle (2022) gives the impression of a film that aspires for greatness and only ends up settling for “good”. The cast is wonderful, the camerawork and editing are impeccable, and the whole film is bursting with heart, but the plot is boilerplate and the themes are nothing remarkable. And of course it pisses me off that half the plot is resolved with a hand wave at the climax, that’s just lazy storytelling.

It’s certainly not a bad movie — hell, it’s worth seeing just for that jaw-dropping training montage — but it’s nowhere near the legitimate greatness that I know these same talents are capable of.

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