Hustle (2022)

“Everybody loves a redemption story.”

Average at its best and emotionally overwrought at its worst, Hustle is a mostly forgettable film about a shared redemption between a NBA scout and a promising talent nobody has spotted until now. That scout is Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler), a man with a lifelong passion for the game who’s still seeking career validation. He doesn’t get the respect he thinks – and knows in heart – he deserves from the generational shift in Philadelphia’s new front office. But that might just change after he stumbles across Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) during a street game. He’s tall, muscly, and nimbly moves around the court in his construction boots. Bo is a Spanish gazelle who can shoot, pass, defend and run baseline to baseline. He has all of the physical gifts. Stanley just needs to teach him the intangibles. They find each other at the right time.

Hustle gets off to a solid start, highlighting the film’s title by showing Stanley’s global journeys through careful and thoughtful editing. He’s never in one place for too long, always bouncing around from one economy hotel room to the next. The picture shows us that the grind for his gig is real. But then Stanley’s rug is pulled from under his feet, career aspirations come to a halt, and the movie itself lapses into a lull. That’s until Bo Cruz enters the story, yet even then the entire endeavor seems to be missing character development and depth. Hustle is too safe for its own good. No risk means no reward. Nothing surprising or clever happens here.

While it’s far too long for a film so unwilling to dig deep enough to unearth its true inner drive and passion, director Jeremiah Zagar makes the most he can out of the diluted and cursory script by Taylor Materne and Will FettersHustle just spends too much time on the showmanship of it all, presenting us with quite possibly the longest training montage I’ve ever seen, all while Adam Sandler relentlessly shouts sweet nothings at the top of his lungs. Bo Cruz gains mythical status without really coming across as a generational talent. And I think that’s because the acting here is lackluster across the board, especially from the athletes scattered throughout. Hustle works well when it’s willing to run suicides looking for that needle in the haystack, but far too often it sits back and relaxes. It’s hard to engage with a film that doesn’t make the first move.

What holds Hustle back is that it doesn’t know how or when to have fun. It’s not a straight up comedy like 1994’s The Scout or The Air Up There from the same year. Those films have the same essential plot as Hustle, but if memory serves me well, they work better because they understand what they’re meant to be and the comedic elements translate through the performances. The seriousness and the solemnity of this drama – as well as the clumsy writing – hold Hustle back from ever breaking through the press and crossing half court. It understands theatrics and will swat every ball in its orbit up into the rafters; I just wish someone more thoughtful had come along and pointed out that blocking a shot and maintaining possession was better for the team than it was to add to the highlight reel. This one belongs in the G League.

“Never back down.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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