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Moving Pictures: ‘Hustle’ and the Effortless Charm of Adam Sandler

There’s something comfortable about the hustle.

By Entertainment, Featured

Film still from the movie Hustle. Adam Sandler walking toward the camera with a contemplative look on his face. In the background is a large basketball logo for the Philedelphia 76ers, and a wall of windows.

Photo by Scott Yamano/Netflix/Scott Yamano/Netflix. © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

We talk about Adam Sandler as a punchline.

We talk about him getting the Razzie nomination for Worst Actor and Worst Actress in the same movie for “Jack and Jill.”

We talk about him taking a holiday with his buddies and calling it a movie for millions of dollars. (Though who among us would not have done the same?) 

We talk about how most of his comedic characters use the same nasal voice that grates the inside of the ear canal as it worms its way into your head. 

We talk about how he took a bunch of his buddies on holiday again and then made another movie that made a quarter of a billion dollars. (Again, do you possess the willpower to not do this if you could?) 

We talk about the bizarre “Hotel Transylvania” series, where Sandler affects the slightest Eastern European accent, which is only slightly less offensive than his performance as the Israeli commando Zohan, in “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan.”

We talk about how out of his 46 films on Rotten Tomatoes, only six of them are considered Fresh.

We talk about how Netflix paid Adam Sandler $275 million for a multi-picture deal, and the first one was “The Ridiculous Six,” which premiered at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Adam Sandler is the punchline. A very wealthy punchline, but the butt of the film reviewer’s joke all the same. 

That can make us forget that Hubie Halloween held his own against one of America’s best actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in “Punch Drunk Love.” That Little Nicky carried the three-hour plot of “Funny People,” playing its depressed, self-destructive, terminally ill stand-up comedian protagonist with heart and depth. That Jack, Jill, the Zohan, Billy Madison, Mr. Deeds, was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in the adrenaline-fueled, anxiety-inducing rollercoaster of “Uncut Gems.” 

On top of all that, if those weren’t enough for crowning achievements, ask any five people you know if they saw the movie “Click,” (33% on Rotten Tomatoes) and ask them if they cried.

Because no matter how much of a punchline Adam Sandler has been over his career, he has proven time and time again that he’s an Actor with a capital A. He hasn’t ever needed to be serious with the money rolling in from each of his critically-maligned comedies. But still, he comes back to prove his chops, not before diving back into his fart jokes and fat suits (he filmed “Funny People” in between filming “Grown Ups” and “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan.”)

And now, he’s back to flexing his dramatic muscles as NBA scout, Stanley Sugarman, in “Hustle,” the latest of his exclusive deal with Netflix. Sugarman, like many of Sandler’s other dramatic roles, is a middle-class man in a financially precarious position, entirely unlike the star that plays him. Yet, Sandler wears Sugarman like a glove. 

Despite his literal wealth and years of Hollywood stardom, Sandler is an extremely convincing everyman. He isn’t charming like Brad Pitt is, smarmy like Ryan Reynolds, neurotic like Jesse Eisenberg. Sugarman, like so many of Sandler’s other dramatic roles, is a fun uncle. He is the man you gravitate towards at your friend’s family function where you know nobody. He’s casual, relaxed, effortless. And he’s so, so, so easy to watch.

That’s the main draw of “Hustle.” Sure, there’s the sports movie appeal of it. The novelty of seeing some of the NBA’s greatest act as themselves. Queen Latifah’s return to the silver screen after a five-year absence. And maybe for some NBA fans, Juancho Hernangómez of the Utah Jazz’s debut as an actor. But all of that rotates around Sandler’s Sugarman, the people’s underdog. 

His chemistry with Queen Latifah flows understatedly. Any NBA star that shares screentime with him flourishes. Any that have to hold their own without Sandler flounder. Sandler and Hernangómez, playing NBA hopeful Bo Cruz, bounce off each other, mostly because Sugarman coaching Cruz mirrors the reality of Sandler leading Hernangómez offscreen. 

Its plot is predictable, as all sports movies are. There is a training montage, there’s a win, a loss, another inevitable win. Some betrayal, some friendship, a bitter rival, a motivational speech about love of the game with driving music underscoring it. You know what you’re getting with a sports movie and “Hustle” isn’t going to usurp any of that. 

What it does is make that ride as comfortable as possible. 

It’s perfect for a long bus or plane ride, to kill some time on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or to unwind at the end of the day. It’s the type of movie you’ll be watching when your dad comes in from the next room, refuses to sit down because he’s got things to do, but ends up finishing the whole movie standing. 

That’s the Sandler effect. For all his missteps, deliberate or otherwise over the years, he still knows how to deliver. He’s easy to root for, easy to be around, easy to watch. He’s not only comfortable as the punchline; he thrives as one. Every dramatic role he takes, including Sugarman in “Hustle,” is down on their luck, struggling to make do, the butt of the joke. And despite his decades of multi-million dollar success, he still knows what it means to be the little guy. Or at least, make it look like he does.

Myle Yan Tay (MFAW 2023) cares a lot about movies and comic books. One day, maybe they will care about him. Find more of his writing at www.myleyantay.com.

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