Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big-budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join Ben Sears and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley. (If and as Happy Madison Productions releases new films, as they have in this instance, Ben will return to the Happy Valley.)
It’s no coincidence that the team of employment for Stanley Sugerman — the character Adam Sandler plays in his latest film, Hustle — is the Philadelphia 76ers. In real life, their general manager, Sam Hinkie, coined the phrase “Trust the Process” to ease tensions throughout the sports-crazed city after tanking the season to snag superstar-in-the-making Joel Embiid.
I’m not saying Sandler’s casting as Stanley is some sort of meta-commentary on Sandler and his career — or his transition from disgraced comedic icon to respected and reliable dramatic / comedic star. But take a look at Sandler’s recent filmography and an argument could be made.
Yes, Sandler has turned in the occasional stinker of late, but his performances have consistently been some of his best, with films like Uncut Gems (perhaps his best ever), Sandy Wexler, The Meyerowitz Stories, and The Week Of.
Now playing in select cinemas and streaming on Netflix starting June 8, Hustle ranks not only as one of Sandler’s best performances but one of the best Happy Madison films overall; yes, the pool is shallow, but this is a film into which Sandler really sinks his teeth. Happy Madison has tackled many an underdog sports story, including one earlier this year, and this film hardly rewrites the playbook on the genre. But there’s a palpable commitment to reality on display in which the studio has rarely shown interest. It doesn’t always work, but I have to applaud director Jeremiah Zagar for trying and making a dynamic sports story that hopefully won’t get lost among the Netflix algorithm’s perpetual output.
Stanley is a workhorse talent scout for the 76ers, in charge of overseeing overseas prospects and with dreams of planting his feet and coaching instead. Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), the team’s owner, respects Stanley and his work. But after Rex unexpectedly dies, his son, Vince (Ben Foster), steps in. Vince and Stanley’s relationship has always been contentious, and Vince boots Stanley back across the pond.
There, Stanley quickly happens upon a street game and is wowed by the performance of Bo Cruz (real-life Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez). Stanley immediately hypes up Bo, taking him both under his wing and back to the states for workouts in the hopes that Bo will be his big meal ticket. It’s always a toss-up to have real athletes performing in dramatic roles for the first time. Hernangómez does his best, but he pales in comparison to Sandler and, frankly, co-star Anthony Edwards (a Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard and former teammate of Hernangómez) as Bo’s chief rival and fellow prospect.
This kicks off a series of training / basketball montages that takes up a strangely large portion of the film’s 118-minute runtime. While Zagar films these moments (and the rest of the film) dynamically and with a sense of exciting grit, the film could have concentrated on other elements that get short-shrift — primarily Stanley’s borderline-estranged relationship with his wife and daughter. Stanley objects early on that he hasn’t been home for his daughter’s birthday in nine years, but their scenes together suggest a still-healthy relationship. Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay otherwise gets its story beats right, hitting all the expected marks. But without Sandler and his chemistry alongside virtually everyone he shares a scene with, Hustle would be just another sports film.
Foster, a fascinating actor himself, is basically reduced to a big meanie, and Queen Latifah as Stanley’s wife, Teresa, is the same supportive spouse we’ve seen throughout too many HM films. At least Sandler manages to sneak in some comic staples of the Happy Madison approach. Consider Stanley and Bo’s first meeting, as the former tries to get the latter’s attention and comes off as soliciting for sex. Or the googly eyes that Stanley’s daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull), gets when she’s around Bo.
Sandler’s performance here stands as one of his best among his Happy Madison career because he gets to utilize his entire arsenal. He possesses the same wiry swagger as Howard Ratner but cracks wise just as potently as George Simmons.
Before Hustle, my favorite Happy Madison sports film was probably Here Comes the Boom. Both films utilized real-life stars of their respective sports — Hustle even lists LeBron James as a co-producer — and they’re all the better for it. There’s an unmistakable physical authenticity from real athletes onscreen that even the best actors can have trouble duplicating. Even when Sandler surrounded himself with athlete-adjacent people (pro wrestlers and Nelly) in The Longest Yard, he wasn’t believable enough to be a compelling physical presence. As of this writing, Hustle holds an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The rating is sure to go down in the week or so after its Netflix release, but it still dwarfs virtually every other Happy Madison production, including Funny People (69%). While I personally wouldn’t argue Hustle is a better film than Funny People, Sandler’s performance, and Zagar’s direction, show that they at least belong in the same conversation. And that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write in this column.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: A film about life in the NBA naturally invites cameos from all manner of NBA stars and personalities, past and present. Mark Cuban, Doc Rivers, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Brad Stevens, Mark Jackson, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Julius Irving, Luca Doncic, Kyle Lowry, Trae Young, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Macey, Seth Curry and many more get their own highlight packages over the closing credits. But the undisputed MVP has to be Jaleel White (yes, that Jaleel White), whose official credited role is “Blake – VP of Player Personnel” while uttering just a few words.
- Just Go With It — The Happy Madison Promise: There’s a scene emblematic of Hustle‘s script issues wherein Vince (again, the team’s owner!) appears on a sports-talk TV show to publicly air his grievances about a prospect that nobody knew of and leave after the single question.
- Fart Joke Counter: None.
- The Walkout Test: Fail. Actually, this category has unfortunately become null and void for any future Netflix films because the person in question has indefinitely canceled their subscription.
- NEXT TIME: Adam Sandler will be appearing in the awards-baity drama Spaceman, allegedly being released this fall, but no evidence suggests Happy Madison is involved with the production. Next up will be the Adam Devine and Pierce Brosnan comedy The Out-Laws. Rumor is the film will be released in fall 2022, but as of this publication, no date has been announced.