A shot at the Philly sports movie pantheon

Netflix presents Jeremiah Zagar’s Hustle

5 minute read
Film still: Sandler walks through the gray-carpeted Sixers lobby, the Philly skyline visible through the window behind him.
A bizarro version of the Sixers world: Adam Sandler in ‘Hustle.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

Adam Sandler has found an unlikely late-career resurgence in dramatic films centered on the game of basketball. First, there was his career-best turn as a jeweler juggling a dozen scams, including a big basketball bet, in the Safdie brothers' 2019 Uncut Gems.

In that film, Sandler's character was betting on a playoff series involving the Philadelphia 76ers. In his new movie, Hustle, he works for the Sixers. Indeed, the film was produced by LeBron James's production company along with Sandler's, and with the full cooperation of the Sixers and NBA.

Jerry Maguire’s heir?

Hustle, which landed on Netflix June 8, 2022 after a brief theatrical run, was filmed locally, directed by area native Jeremiah Zagar, and is steeped in Philly culture in many ways. The first major Hollywood movie production to come to town in the pandemic era, Hustle had a local premiere at the Philadelphia Film Center on June 7, with Sandler and a coterie of NBA stars in attendance.

It’s a well-made, entertaining, and crowd-pleasing effort that uses Philadelphia well. The story is disjointed at times: quite a few plot elements don't add up, and the performances by the non-acting basketball players are hit-or-miss. But Hustle is going to delight Sandler fans, basketball fans, and anyone who enjoys Philadelphia.

Sandler's performance is very far away from his turn in Uncut Gems, as the tension is much lower. But it's also a far cry from the sort of comedies with which Sandler is most associated, including the sort of forgettable fare he's been doing for Netflix the last few years. Sure, the film has quite a few laughs, but it's not what you probably think of as an "Adam Sandler comedy.”

Hustle's premise has a lot in common with that of Jerry Maguire, a sports movie in which the protagonist is a non-athlete whose success hinges on the young athlete he mentors, even if its hero this time is a bit more of a sad sack. The last major film in which the hero was a scout was the 2012 Clint Eastwood baseball movie Trouble with the Curve, but that movie had a reactionary, anti-analytics slant that Hustle thankfully lacks.

Cheesesteaks and the draft

Sandler stars as Stanley Sugerman, an international scout for the 76ers who aspires to a coaching career. A former Temple basketball player who fell in some disgrace in his younger years, Sugerman's career had been helped along by the team's beloved, elderly, Ed Snider-like owner (the 91-year-old screen legend Robert Duvall). But the owner is soon replaced by his inane son (Ben Foster, channeling past Sixers nepotism hire Bryan Colangelo), who's much less fond of Sugerman.

Needing a splashy discovery to keep his job and dreams alive, Sugerman finds Spanish streetball player Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), and brings him to Philly for an extended pre-draft visit.

Film still: two leaping basketball players fight for the ball on an outdoor daytime Philly court in front of about 25 people
A film full of Philly: ‘Hustle’ features many local courts. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

That makes up the bulk of the movie, as the two get into fish-out-of-water adventures around town. There are funny cheesesteak jokes and, you guessed it, a Rocky-style training montage.

Basketball stars

It's all very fun, with numerous Philly locations and a seemingly endless parade of cameos by local and national basketball stars. Most of them, though, have pretty brief turns, with Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson popping up for about five seconds each, and Dirk Nowitzki appearing only for a brief FaceTime call. My favorite was probably Sixers legend Julius Erving. It's Dr. J's first appearance in a major motion picture since 1993's Philadelphia, when he was seen sharing a luxury suite with the evil lawyers who fired Tom Hanks.

The film features a bizarro version of the Sixers in which Doc Rivers is the coach and they have most of their real current players, but their ownership and front office are fictitious. And, presumably, the Sam Hinkie/Process era never happened. There's also a fictional assistant coach played by Steve Urkel himself, Jaleel White.

I'm not exactly sure why Joel Embiid isn't in the film, but there's probably an interesting story about it. Cruz, a foreign-born NBA big man living alone in a Philadelphia hotel while he waits to play, clearly evokes the stories of how Embiid spent his first two injured seasons with the Sixers. Might Embiid have designs on telling his own story on film at some point? I've been saying for a while now that he has movie-star potential. (It's not such a mystery, however, why Ben Simmons doesn't appear.)

NBA player-turned-broadcaster Kenny "The Jet" Smith co-stars as a Rich Paul-like player agent, leading to a hilarious moment in which we see a clip from Smith's show Inside the NBA—except Smith is absent because, in this universe, Smith is portraying someone else and doesn't exist.

The performance by Anthony Edwards is the most fascinating. The 20-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves guard—no, not the Anthony Edwards who played Goose in Top Gun—is a budding real-life superstar, but is so new to the league that he doesn't yet have an established persona that most NBA fans might recognize. Since it’s the first many basketball fans will see of him, it's kind of a bold choice to play Kermit Wilts, a cruel, trash-talking villain.

Making the second tier

There are more than a few unbelievable plot contrivances, starting with just about everything in the movie that involves money. The things Sugerman does, on behalf of a long-shot draft prospect, are not something that a team scout or assistant coach would ever do, nor could he afford to do them, and some of those things likely violate NBA rules.

Those keyed into the minutiae of how the NBA works will likely find lots of opportunities for nitpicking; there's no way, for instance, that an assault charge in the past would kill a promising player's draft stock, nor would any NBA owner ever go on television just to disparage a draft prospect. And one plot point near the end is both telegraphed well in advance, and barely explained at all.

Hustle isn't quite at the top of the Philly sports movie pantheon, which remains filled with the first three Rocky movies, Creed, and Invincible (I emphatically exclude Silver Linings Playbook.) But I'd place Hustle in the next tier, for all of the above-listed reasons, plus one line from Sandler that's an instant all-time quote: Philly has "the best sports fans in the world—actually, the worst, but that’s what makes them the best.”

What, When, Where

Hustle. Written by Adam Sandler, directed by Jeremiah Zagar. Now available to stream on Netflix.

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