Friday, April 19, 2024

‘Hustle’ Never Feels Like a Grind

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Hustle is an inspirational sports movie about basketball made by people who love basketball. One of the hallmarks of any good sports movie is that it can make you care about a sport you have no interest. As a man who doesn’t love basketball, I found myself invested in these characters and their love of the game.

One of the reasons Hustle works so well is that the director Jeremiah Zagar and his writers, Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, don’t travel the well-worn narrative roads of other sports movies. Oh, movies about talent scouts discovering savants in the slums have been made before. But Zagar also wisely includes the backdrop of the character’s emotional struggles to connect and find happiness.

It helps that Zagar and his writers have Adam Sandler in the starring role. Sandler’s Stanely Sugarman is the typical Sandler creation. A put-upon stressed-out sad-sack struggling to keep his head above water. However, the greatness comes not from the character, but from the grace notes Sandler finds to make us root for Stanely.

He’s a scout who, while he has a beautiful eye for talent, dreams of being a coach but also wishes he could be with his family more. His wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) wish he were home more. Sandler conveys an intense longing to be home and frustration at the growing distance between him and his daughter. A distance he knows is partly due to her growing up but also due to his absence.

Sandler’s Stanely discovers a diamond in the rough, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), while on a scouting trip to Spain. Unfortunately, the prospect he is sent to evaluate doesn’t show, so Stanely decides to shoot some hoops. But instead, he discovers Bo on the court, hustling for money.

Materne and Fetters take their time with the story. As Hustle begins, we see Stanely going from city to city, country to country, continent to continent, hoping to find a player worthy of the Philadelphia 76ers. He is tired, depressed, cynical, and sad. The editing in these sequences by Tom Costain, Brain Robinson, and Keiko Deguchi is a sample of what’s to come.

The editing is the secret sauce of Hustle. In an era where blockbusters increasingly look dull and move at a breakneck pace but with no natural internal rhythm, Hustle bops and sways along like a pick-up game. The quick cuts show time passing, Stanley in different outfits and hotel rooms. At this moment, I began to realize I was in good hands with Hustle.

Zagar is doing something with Hustle that, while not unique, is more successful than other attempts. Many of the characters, such as Bo himself, are played by actual NBA basketball players. In contrast, other characters are played by more than capable character actors, such as the owner of the 76ers, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), or his son Vince (Ben Foster). 

Putting trained actors together with athletes is risky, but Zagar and his team pull it off splendidly. The neo-realism aspects never hinder the dramatic highs and lows of Hustle. Primarily this is because neither Zagar nor his writers attempt to manufacture drama. 

In other words, no moments feel as if they exist at the expense of everything else. The conflict doesn’t feel inserted to satisfy a narrative beat. The relationship between Stanley and his wife also makes this work. Queen Latifah and Sandler make for a cute and loving couple. Zagar peppers Hustle with moments of the two massaging each other to show the emotional intimacy they share. Whether it’s Stanely massaging Teresa’s foot or Teresa massaging Stanely’s hand to loosen up the damaged nerves, Zagar gives us a couple that has been believably together for years.

The way they talk to each other, the vulnerability that exists. Teresa tells Stanely to quit, to follow his dreams. “Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams. They have nightmares and eczema.” 

All of this feeds into the drama of Hustle. Rex trusts Stanely and values his opinion. So much so that he makes him an assistant coach, a dream of Stanelys. Sadly, Rex dies early on, and Rex’s bombastic hot-headed son Vince takes over and puts Stanely back on the road.

Duvall is, as always, excellent. He plays Rex with a sort of quiet ease. The way he sits and holds himself, we know in the past this man was hellion, and listening to the way he talks to Stan, we can sense the love and respect for him. 

Stanley’s demotion would have felt perfunctory if Zagar and the writers had not put in the legwork. Instead, it is a gut punch. Stanley and Teresa were going to spend more time together, and he was finally going to be home for his daughter’s birthday. Worse is that we see the happiness on Stanely’s face on his first coaching day, and we can sense the impending downfall.

Zagar brilliantly captures the interior life of his characters. Sandler is uniquely suited for Stanely Sugarman, as he’s been playing this role, it feels like, his entire career. Yet, in every way, he finds new notes to play. I couldn’t help but be fascinated with Stanely’s shuffle; its weight seems to be metaphorically pushing him to the ground. 

He uses Zak Mulligan’s camera as a portal to the inner emotions and thoughts of the characters. Mulligan uses the lens as a way to capture the tics and winces of the characters, minute signs of the loneliness that they feel. Mulligan and Zagar work together to make a silent movie about overcoming adversity but do so through quiet moments and personal growth. There is no big game to win; Materne and Fetters are too clever for that; there is only the next game, the next, and the next.

Stanely and Bo do not have an easy relationship. Bo has his issues and fears, which are different from Stanley’s. Hernangomez doesn’t have Sandler’s ease, but Zagar uses his uneasiness to show how uncomfortable he feels. In addition, Bo is in another country, away from his daughter for the first time in his life. He’s all alone; his only friend is a man who seems upset that he ate nine-dollar pringles. “We don’t eat nine-dollar pringles. A man must have a code.”

Hernangomez has a charm about him. He is good enough that for parts of the movie, I questioned whether he was maybe an actor and not a professional basketball player. Of course, he is both, but this shows Zagar’s shrewdness in dabbling in the neo-realism aspects. If you know the NBA, you will likely know the stars as they parade across the screen, but some of them aren’t playing themselves, and there’s more than a bit of magic in that.

Hustle is filled with little gems of performances. Heidi Gardner as Rex’s daughter Kat (Hedi Gardner) is one of my favorites. Like Duvall, Gardner only has a few scenes. But also, like Duvall, Gardner makes us want to see more. 

She plays Kat very close to the chest; we get a sense of the history between Stanely and Kat in a way we don’t between Stanely and Vince. But the way Gardner smiles, like she has a secret we will never know, adds a layer of mischief to her character. I liked how you could tell Stanely was sad she left a meeting he’s going into. It’s as if he’s sorry that someone else who loves the game as he does won’t be in the room.

Another performance I loved was Kenny Smith’s Leon, Stanley’s old college friend. A successful agent, he is Stanely’s cheerleader, confidant, and man in Havanah. I liked the energy Smith, a sports commentator, brought to Leon; the mirror opposite Sandler’s weighed down Stanley. He’s also a charming actor with a beautiful presence that feels at home with non-actors and actors alike.

Hustle fees measured and breathless all at once. It is a movie about people who view basketball not as a sport but as the purpose of life. These are the people Nick Horny writes about, obsessed fans, not in the modern sense, but in how they use the sport to understand life and the hardships that come with it.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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