This article appeared in the June 9, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Hustle (Jeremiah Zagar, 2022)

Adam Sandler’s new basketball-centric passion project sets itself apart from its sports-movie kin with its documentary-like attention to the rules of the game—both on and off the court. Taking a cue from the grounded and soulful performance of its star, the film exudes a disarming sincerity and rough-hewn charm. The Sandman plays the absurdly named NBA scout Stanley Sugerman, a doughy, bearded schlub whose appearance belies his well-honed instincts and expertise. After the sudden death of his employer and mentor, the aged owner of the Philadelphia 76ers (Robert Duvall in a brief, avuncular turn), Stanley finds his 30-year career in stasis—if not imminent peril—as the old man’s feckless failson (Ben Foster with a gleaming Mr. Clean dome) takes over.

So far, so Billy Madison, with Stanley’s purehearted doofus squaring off against a sneering child of privilege. Given one last chance to save his job, Stanley stumbles upon a diamond-in-the-rough construction worker Bo Cruz (Spanish NBA journeyman Juancho Hernangómez) hustling street ballers in Barcelona. What ensues is a Pygmalion-like (or rather, Rocky-like, given the many foggy early-morning jogs through a grimy Philly) transformation of the raw into the cooked, as Stanley—still living with the physical and psychological fallout of a college drunk driving accident—risks his career on molding Bo into an NBA player.

The film’s success is owed in part to the inspired casting of real-life hoopers. Though some are natural actors (Anthony Edwards as a young, dickish phenom; Kenny “The Jet” Smith as a high-rolling agent), and others not so much (former MVP Dirk Nowitzki as himself—the role he was apparently not born to play), the players all talk shop and hoop with lived-in ease. As the drama unfolds, emotions are bared, lessons are learned, Freudian father-son revelations are aired, and the film transcends its familiar underdog narrative, turning into a moving and thoughtful portrait of the ways in which ingrained reflexes—the muscle memory of a shooting motion or the shame engendered by a long-ago error of judgment—can set boundaries on our achievements.