Adam Sandler’s career is one of the most interesting and diverse of any actor I can remember. As a standout on Saturday Night Live from 1990-1995, Sandler gave us some of the silliest and most outrageous characters in the show’s long-running history. From Opera Man and Cajun Man to Canteen Boy and Lucy Brawn (the Gap girl), Sandler was a huge part of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live era. When Sandler left SNL, he instantly became a huge star on the big screen with hilarious and raunchy comedies like Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, The Water Boy, and Big Daddy. There were a few misses in there as well, but Sandler is unmistakably one of the most lucrative comedic actors of all time.
The first instance we saw Sandler’s acting chops progress into something more dramatic was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. I remember being blown away by Sandler’s authentic take on a man who struggles with social anxiety and loneliness. It was the type of transformative performance that reminded me of a young Tom Hanks when he made the leap from films like Bachelor Party and Splash to something more “reputable,” for lack of a better word, like Big. Both actors would follow up their dramatic (though still comedic) turns with a slew of frivolous (though sporadically fun) films. Hanks would star in The ‘Burbs and Joe Versus the Volcano, while Sandler’s slate would go on to include Mr. Deeds and The Hot Chick.
Hanks is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, so don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to compare the level that these two actors have perfected their craft. I simply find their career arches worthy of comparison. Hanks would go on to be nominated for six acting Oscars (winning twice), while Sandler is yet to receive recognition from the Academy. I would argue he deserved to win in 2019 for Uncut Gems, but that is an entire other conversation.
In his latest film, Netflix’s Hustle, Sandler plays Stanley “Sugarman” Beren, a fatigued and disheartened basketball talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers with dreams of coaching in the NBA. While looking for “the next big thing” overseas, Stanley discovers Bo Cruz (NBA star Juancho Hernangomez), an immense, off-the-radar talent playing pick-up games on the street courts of Spain. The pair work against the odds (including Bo’s troubled past) to get Bo to qualify for the NBA draft.
On the surface, Hustle is a delightful and heartwarming buddy movie – a traditional sports flick full of David and Goliath battles, training montages, and the heart-stopping thrills of on-court action. But it’s much more than that. Beneath the surface lies a subtle father/son element that comes off exceptionally well, as both men seem to have found in one another exactly what their counterpart needed. Their connection is the magic behind the film.
The role of the down on his luck, career journeyman required a mix of what Sandler does best – sophomoric humor and neurotic sensitivity. And in that capacity, Sandler sparkles and shines, delivering one of his career-best performances.
Hustle isn’t visionary in its approach, nor does it need to be. Director Jeremiah Zagar knows exactly what his film is and doesn’t try to force it to be anything else. Hustle is an absolute crowd-pleaser, full of stand up and cheer moments. The movie features a who’s who of NBA stars and a great supporting cast including Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, and Kenny Smith. But it is clear who the star is, as the film sensibly allows Adam Sandler to show what a versatile actor he is.
Netflix is releasing Hustle in theaters, along with a premiere on their streaming service on June 8.