Hustle (M, 117 minutes, Netflix)
In one of his unfunny, and yet still very fun movies, Adam Sandler shoots and scores as a talented and exhausted recruiting scout for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team who stumbles across the find of his career.
This latest in the partnership between Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company and Netflix uses many on-and-off court current-and-past basketball legends on the screen, some playing themselves, some playing fictionalised characters, loaning the film a dynamism and believability and infectious energy.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a loving family man whose career unfortunately has him constantly on the road, travelling from game to game, court to court, always on the hunt for the next player that might take his beloved 76ers to the next championships.
The team's owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) has finally rewarded Sugarman's efforts with a position on the team's coaching squad but then goes and dies, leaving son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge.
Unfortunately Stanley has been a little too honest with his opinions of Vince's decision-making around player recruitment over the years and so Vince punishes him, sending him back on the road.
In Spain to see another player, Stanley stumbles on a street game where a whole neighbourhood has come out to see Bo Cruz (in real life the Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangomez) and he convinces the single father to come to America with him, but where Vince once again punishes Stanley, who resigns.
Stanley and his wife Teresa (Queen Latifa) take on the financial and coaching responsibility for Bo, using Stanley's long industry experience to try and get the boy recognised, and a place in one of the major teams.
That mumbling patter that Sandler made his comedic schtick on Saturday Night Live and then in a series of dumb hilarious films, part patois and part externalised interior monologue, is still here, but toned right down and underneath a huge bushy beard.
Sandler proved in the recent Uncut Gems that he's moved beyond funny man to serious performer and into the Robin Williams territory, a legitimately brilliant actor, and he makes Stanley Sugarman world-weary and with an undercurrent of pathos that the film eventually comes around to. Casting a performer with the heft of Queen Latifa in the usually thankless role of supportive wife gives the Stanley character further weight.
Jeremiah Zagar cut his teeth on documentary, so innately understands character.
It is Stanley's family dynamic that works both to hook the family-man Bo Cruz into this career gamble, and to give him the support network in America, and gives the two different men a connection. Juancho Hernangomez is also a real find.
What also gives the film its fluidity and energy is the cinematic approach developed between director Jeremiah Zagar and his cinematographer Zac Mulligan, who worked together on Zagar's feature debut We The Animals in 2018.
They particularly give a nervous energy to the on-court scenes, the balletic camerawork matching the obvious skill of the clever real-life players. There's a believable patter between the characters to the screenplay from Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, understanding the game is in the mind as much as in the body.
Jeremiah Zagar cut his teeth on documentary, so innately understands character. This might be why he extracts such raw performances from all of his performers. I only know basketball players from movies, and there is sometimes, often actually, a wooden-ness to sports figures who appear in films, an awkward transition. That's not the case here.
Zagar also grew up in Philadelphia and so the film feels like a love letter to the city, and not in a panoramic postcard way.
It is expressed in small shots. A cook at Melrose Diner slopping meats onto a Philly cheesesteak bun. The pre-dawn street lights reflecting off the wet streets of Manayuk Wall, a favourite with the city's cyclists.
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