The Adam Sandler sports film that shoots some hoops.

When you begin to watch “Hustle,” you see Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Production logo, and you’re thinking you’re in trouble. But as you continue watching it, you’re relieved. It’s neither at the idiotic and immature levels of “Grown Ups 2” or “Hubie Halloween,” but rather it’s a smart and emotional sports comedy-drama that cares more about the drama than the laughs.

As a Netflix movie with a delicate and sweet balance of comedy and pathos, I was reminded of how well Kevin Hart transitioned himself in the genres in “Fatherhood.” Comedy actors don’t always have to make us laugh; they can just find their emotions within. I know the first part sounds like what Siskel & Ebert called “Comedies without Laughs” and “Dramas without Brains,” but the second part knows the stakes.

Sandler is Stanley Sugarman (no relation to the Sixto Rodriguez song), a down-on-his-luck basketball scout in Philadelphia, who travels to different countries trying to recruit their top athletes for the NBA. Just as he’s on the verge of making it to the top, he finds out his boss (Robert Duvall) passes away, and his son (Ben Foster) takes over for him. Stanley now has less of an angle with his new boss, which is why he quits.

The resignation takes place between him traveling to Spain to find its best basketball player and training the young man. His name is Bo Cruz (real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangomez), he has a criminal record of an assault charge, and a little girl and single mother (Maria Botto) to provide. So, Stanley takes him to Philadelphia to train him to impress the head honchos of the big leagues. Of course, it wouldn’t be a sports movie without the coach telling the athlete to cut back on the violence and focus more on the priorities, especially since Bo has that assault charge I’ve mentioned.

This wouldn’t be the first auteur film to have Sandler giving a profound performance that proves he can be more than just an SNL-movie comedy star. There was “Punch Drunk Love,” “Spanglish,” “Reign Over Me,” “The Meyerowitz Stories,” and “Uncut Gems.” I didn’t forget “Men, Women & Children,” because that was a bad movie. “Hustle” has some funny moments that I laughed in my head, but it’s more focused on the sport movie genre that is given the routine emotions and challenges, and yet, allows Netflix streamers to root for this young, tall player and his struggling coach. It has to be challenging, given the circumstances, and the R-rating give it quite an edge.

Sandler is able to take a break from his embarrassing comedies to push himself to new limits, and I admire how he’s able to reach his age and portray an ambitious coach. Hernangomez also does some fine work as the main basketball player, who struggles with his own issues. And Queen Latifah also delivers some fine work at Stanley’s devoted wife, who worries about his well-being.

“Hustle” wants to follow in the sports league of “Rocky,” “Coach Carter,” “The Way Back,” and “Field of Dreams,” and so forth. Director Jeremiah Zagar shares his affection for the game and the players, with some help from producers Sandler and LeBron James, and writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters. Complete with a high-spirited soundtrack and a number of NBA talents, you’re in for a rare Sandler movie that’s actually made by humans.

And BTW, if you see Anthony Edwards’ name in the opening credits, it’s not the “Top Gun” actor; it’s the Ant-Man from the NBA. Just a little clarification, because I only knew the actor, and not the player.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

Now Playing in Select Theaters

Premieres on Netflix Next Wednesday

Categories: comedy, Drama, Sport

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