Starring: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall, Jaleel White, Ben Foster, Heidi Gardner, and introducing Juancho Hernangomez. Also featuring dozens of cameos from current and former NBA players and coaches.
Directed By: Jeremiah Zagar
Where I Watched It: Netflix
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
Description Provided By: International Digital Center
Description Written By: Dakota Green
Narrated By: Sri Gordon
The Plot: A respected basketball scout (Sandler) gets the promotion he’s been hoping for, to finally be a coach when the manager (Duvall) for the 76ers offers him an assistant coach spot. But that dream is quickly dashed when tragedy finds him being thrown right back into his scouting job. Soon, while traveling the world for the next big thing, he finds a player no one has heard of, Bo Cruz (Hernangomez) and banks his entire career and future on getting this one man to NBA superstardom.
What Works: Adam Sandler is acting again. I don’t just mean he showed up for a movie, I mean, he’s actually emoting. He’s reading dialogue. This isn’t some Hewbie Halloween crap. This is like he heard his feedback on Uncut Gems and decided to do a passion project around basketball. Sandler is a basketball fan, which is made even more obvious by his ability to pull in Lebron James as a producer, and dozens of former players. This is like Rescue rangers for NBA fans. Lots of familiar faces pop up, and they just add to the authenticity of the project. They didn’t have to teach actors to play basketball, or hire doubles for the action shots. These are real ballers, and for the most part they are playing themselves.
The exception is Hernangomez who plays Bo Cruz, a phenom as presented in the context of the film that ultimately required an actual NBA player to step into this role. He does a good job for an athlete playing an athlete. Comparing his acting here to Kazzam or Steel would just be mean…to Shaq.
But really, it’s a Sandler film carried by Sandler. He’s not doing his most dramatic work, but for those of us who have seen his dramatic endeavors before, not just Uncut Gems but films like Reign over Me, Punch Drunk Love, The Meyorwitz Stories, and Men Women and Children, he’s just following through on a promise that we all know he has inside him. he just too often refuses to use it.
If Sandler were to do more of these films, and less of the kind of films he’s used to making with his roster of comedic friends that seem incapable of getting work unless it comes from Happy Madison, he would find his career in some kind of Sandler Renaissance. Truth is, he hasn’t made a great comedy in a while, living up to the expectations and bar he set for himself at the beginning of his career. We haven’t had a Wedding Singer, Happy Gilmore, or even Big Daddy in far too long.
So why not make more films like Hustle?
What Doesn’t Work: I really did enjoy this film, even if it might seem like it follows a predictable formula, but my biggest criticism is that Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah have no chemistry, nor does this film attempt to make it seem like they might. This film almost feels like an arranged marriage, as they come across more as brother and sister, or roommates that are friends than a married couple. They don’t seem attracted to each other, and even when he starts messing with the families personal finances, she doesn’t care enough to even have them in a serious fight. This relationship is made more unfortunate by featuring two gifted actors, who both can be charismatic, and have pulled off romantic comedies in the past. Queen Latifah has managed to have chemistry with Common and LL Cool J, so why not Sandler? And Sandler has managed to flirt with every hot female he can lure into one of his comedies, from Joey Lauren Adams to Kate Beckinsale. What went wrong here, and why didn’t the director fix it?
The Blind Perspective: Proving that Disney sucks yet again, the narration here written by Dakota Green does exactly what the Rescue Rangers description SHOULD have done with all those animated cameos. In hustle, we don’t get every single player featured in the film into the audio description, but we do get quite a few, and they are mentioned the same way characters in Rescue Rangers should have been. Just by their names, like you should know who Dr. J is, or Kyle Lowry. That way, NBA fans get all the feels and the investment that Netflix made in pulling all these players in isn’t wasted by just labeling them as random basketball players with no names.
And it’s not like their names or presence necessarily changes the plot. You don’t need to know that Allen Iverson is referenced, or that Shaq makes an appearance to follow the main plot structure. However, it does what the audio description is supposed to do, and it levels the playing field between the visual and non-visual audiences, allowing us to “see” what we would have been able to see with our eyes if they worked.
A visual audience, one familiar with the NBA, would have seen all these players and gotten the warm fuzzy feeling, that nostalgic buzz that Hustle is aiming for. If they had Rescue Rangered this film, we once again would have missed out on an experience that is intentional, that was likely costly to make happen for a visual audience, and something that could have enhanced the experience and enjoyment of the film for any NBA fan watching Hustle. Ultimately, Hustle and Netflix did it right. They allowed Dakota Green to expertly craft the perfect balance in narration, giving us the story, while also managing to add in many of the NBA cameos for our enjoyment. Disney specifically prohibited its AD team from making specific references, creating an entirely different expereince for its blind and visually impaired audience. Separate is not equal. Netflix beats Disney.
Final Thoughts: A surprisingly good time centered around a solid performance from Adam Sandler that isn’t likely to disappoint a basketball fan, or anyone looking for an inspirational sports drama.
Final Grade: A-