Review – Sandler Shoots! He Scores! (“Hustle”)

You either love ’em or hate ’em. Adam Sandler has had quite a unique film career with such winners as Happy Gilmore, 50 First Dates, and his extraordinary Uncut Gems in 2019. But, let’s not forget, his movie flops are the stuff of legend!

Mixing elements of The Scout, Rocky, and Jerry McGuire, Sandler this time around plays Stanley Sugarman, a former disgraced NCAA basketball star turned scout for the Philadelphia 76’s. His travels take him all over the world looking for possible future basketball players but, as the old adage goes, many are called but few are chosen. After many years, Stanley is surprised to get his dream job by the 76’s owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), an assistant coaching position! But it’s short-lived as Rex dies, leaving his dick-of-a-son, Vince (Ben Foster), in charge. That means Stanley is back as a scout again. Ugh! Good thing he has a caring, understanding wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull) for support.

Anyway, while in Spain scouting for players, Stanley stumbles onto an exciting game of street basketball and the crowd’s favorite player, phenom Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez). Seeing $$$, Stanley quickly nabs this young man and brings him to the U.S., even though Vince doesn’t want him. Convinced Bo is the real deal (despite his checkered past), Stanley shows him off at a special NBA game where Bo is unhinged by brash young hot-shot player, Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards) who loves to talk smack. Disgraced, Stanley quits the 76’s and goes out on his own to train Bo for the upcoming and very important NBA Combine Draft. Cue the overly-long training montage.

But will that be enough when Bo faces his arch-enemy, Kermit, again? Will Stanley have his dreams fulfilled or will they crash and burn? And does his wife secretly moonlight as an Equalizer at night? If you’re a big basketball fan, you’ll love this movie as it features many NBA cameos. Written by first-time screenwriter Taylor Materne and Will Fetters (2018’s A Star Is Born), I’m guessing that either Taylor or Will watched 1994’s The Scout first, as this movie follows almost the same plot, only this movie is far superior and edited better. Honest dialogue, situations, and emotions, this is not one of Sandler’s gag-inducing comedies. Although Adam does have some very funny moments, he doesn’t milk them; they’re real and not forced. 

The direction by Jeremiah Zagar (We The Animals) toggles back and forth from straight-shooting to documentary-style (floating camera, in & out of focus), which is no surprise as Zagar is primarily known for shooting documentaries. Aside from being about 20 minutes too long, this is another reason that Sandler should stick to drama (or dramedies). Not only is Adam just wonderful as a hang-dog everyman, but he’s surrounded by an exceptional cast as well. Queen Latifah is always good, but Foster is particularly nasty as Vince. Kenny Smith as Leon has some great moments as does Maria Botto as Bo’s mother.

However, praise must be given to Juancho, who is making his acting debut here. The man is primarily a real-life basketball player, currently with the Utah Jazz, but he has better acting skills than many other sports figures that have turned to acting. And let’s not forget Edwards as Kermit Wilts. Even though he’s only in two key scenes, he gives an indelible performance. I must confess, I’m not much of a sports fan, but this movie drew me in with the likability of the characters and the theme of the story. It’s on Netflix, so it’s definitely worth a watch!

**Now showing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix

The Scout (1994)

This is what happens when you have a studio tinker with a script and, in the end, ruin a perfectly good idea for a buddy-comedy sports movie. Even screenwriter/actor Albert Brooks hated this film and what eventually became of it.

Al Percolo (Brooks) is a baseball scout for the New York Yankees and has a gift for the gab; that is, he can talk anybody into practically anything. He even convinces a minor league hot-shot pitcher (a young Michael Rapaport) to sign after lying to his religious parents. Unfortunately, that kid gets horrible stage fright and Al is banished (punished) to scouting only Mexican ball clubs by his nasty boss (Lane Smith). However, to his shock and amazement, Al finds a 20-something American phenom named Steve Nebraska (Brendan Fraser) with a lightning-fast pitch and incredible home-run hitting.

Naturally, Al wants to immediately sign him up, but there’s off about this guy. Child-like and reserved, Steve is unfiltered, a loose cannon, and only trusts Al who, after being fired, makes Steve a free agent. This gets him signed with the Yankees for a cool $55million after a bidding war! Yeah, but there’s a catch: Steve won’t play until next year unless the Yankees get into the World Series, but what are the chances of that? Meanwhile, Steve has to be certified by a psychologist, and that’s where kindly Dr. H. Aaron (Diane Weist) comes into their lives. Through multiple sessions with Steve, she finds out he’s been abused, has latent violent tendencies, and is disassociated with the world.

The ending, which you can see coming a mile away, is a tired old Rocky-esque retread, and not what Brooks or screenwriter Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles, The In-Laws) initially wanted. It was supposed to be “totally bananas”, as Bergman said, but the studios nixed that idea, and you can see the terrible tonal shifts throughout the movie. Along with sportswriter Roger Angell and Monica Johnson (Modern Romance), there are some truly funny moments mixed with heart-breaking parts that never mesh together and feel forced and way out of place. Yeah, this script had SO much potential for a full-out bonkers comedy, especially with Brooks and Fraser as the leads, but it sadly crashed and burned.

Not to say they didn’t give their best. Brooks does his best to elevate the comedy schtick and Fraser, three years before striking it big time in George of the Jungle, is excellent as the off-kilter and detached Nebraska. Weist is also great as the motherly Dr. Aaron and I loved Lane Smith as Al’s rapacious boss. He never disappoints. Plus, you get some nice cameos from IRL Yankee ballplayers Keith Hernandez, Bret Saberhagen, Ozzie Smith, and George Steinbrenner! And, for some fun, Tony Bennett even shows up for a few scenes. But even with all of this, this movie tanked and is hard to watch. You can find some humorous parts, but for the most part, it’s not very good. 

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