The long-awaited (by us, anyway), Philadelphia-filmed basketball drama Hustle is finally making its way to the masses, and the reviews are rolling in. And so far, they’re actually pretty good.
Hustle, which began filming in town in fall 2020, stars Adam Sandler as the schlubby Stanley Sugerman, a downtrodden scout for the 76ers who wants to get off the road and spend more time with his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull). During a scouting trip to Spain, he finds underdog Bo Cruz (Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez), a street baller with a heart of gold and a troubled past — and quite possibly his ticket to an assistant coaching job with the Sixers.
If that sounds a little cliché and predictable to you, you’re not alone. Most reviewers seem to agree, but say that doesn’t make it not worth watching. Instead, as the AV Club’s Courtney Howard writes, elements like compelling characters, polished script, and fine film craftsmanship from director Jeremiah Zagar (a Philly native and son of artist Isaiah Zagar) “more than make up for its narrative familiarity.”
“There will be absolutely no surprises here, and telling you that now isn’t a spoiler. And yet, I’m not saying Hustle should be easily written off,” writes Slashfilm’s Chris Evangelista, adding that the film often feels similar to Rocky or Creed.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman agrees, writing that Hustle directly nods to Rocky at one point, but follows the formula of sports movies like Million Dollar Arm and Jerry McGuire. And while it steers clear of a jog up the Art Museum steps, the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writes, it does follow that Philly classics tradition of having a “rough-diamond newcomer going up against the pros.”
Despite Hustle being a basketball-focused film, you don’t need to know the sport intimately to like it, according to Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt. The story, instead, is what shines, so much so that its “sturdy script … pulls you into the underdog story on a human level,” writes Rooney.
But given the deep bench of cameos from NBA stars like the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, Sixers great Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the Dallas Mavericks’ Boban Marjanović, the effort to appeal to basketball fans may be wasted “on those who wouldn’t know Steph Curry if he was staring at them from a Wheaties box,” the AV Club’s Howard writes.
If you do know basketball, though, some reviews note that the film may feel a bit more authentic thanks to the cameos. When done well, they work toward “bolstering a mostly standard-issue underdog narrative,” writes The Wrap’s Robert Abele. Or not, if you ask the Chicago Tribune’s Nina Metz.
“The movie, directed by Philly native Jeremiah Zagar, feels like the opposite of an insider’s take on the sport,” Metz writes. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, meanwhile, notes that the endearing, squeaky-clean image of the NBA that Hustle portrays makes it look “a bit like a corporate promo for the NBA.”
But whether the cameos work in terms of authenticity, Zagar was able to coax serviceable, even good, performances out of the NBA stars — a skill that the director honed in his 2018 critical darling We the Animals, which features several nonprofessional actors, the Hollywood Reporter’s Rooney writes. Hernangómez, he adds, is in fact “immensely likable and magnetic in his first screen role” as Cruz.
And Sandler, Variety’s Gleiberman writes, is particularly good, having “learned to pour every bit of himself into a role” in his post-Uncut Gems career. So, don’t expect “anything notably representative of the Sandler oeuvre” a la Happy Gilmore or The Waterboy, The Wrap’s Abele writes.
So, is it good? Well, on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, Hustle is pulling a 90% positive, but it might not be everyone’s thing. Luckily you can decide for yourself — the film is now in select theaters (including at several in the Philadelphia region), and will be available to stream via Netflix starting Wednesday.