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Hustle and Barry

click to enlarge Every time a former staffer pops off in the Jan. 6 hearings.

Hustle

Every time a former staffer pops off in the Jan. 6 hearings.

HUSTLE. As a foolishly sentimental person of a certain age, I will likely never give up on Adam Sandler. He rose to prominence at a time when Saturday Night Live was an illicit pleasure, at least in my house, something to be enjoyed as much for the show itself as for the accomplishment of sneaking past my sleeping parents to enjoy it. The show, at that time, was emblematic of humor in the 1990s, but it also brought together a cast of unlikely superstars-to-be and subsequently ushered in an era of Hollywood comedy that was unprecedented and tragically short-lived. And Sandler became the standard-bearer among those weird savants, the jock-nerd among nerd-nerds who would, decades on, prove himself the savviest navigator of the show business landscape. These days, he's a thriving impresario in a business with seemingly no space for his ilk, an elder statesman.

Before the excruciating fracturing of modern culture had really begun, Sandler created a space for himself by straddling divides: He was quasi-macho, but he traded on vulnerability and goofiness. Among his SNL characters, the Herlihy Boy was a pure nincompoop; Opera Man's bravado couldn't conceal his legacy of failure and weakness. Sandler made a career out of playing over the top buffoons and blowhards whose sensitivity was as obvious as their bombast. And in a time that allowed for demonstrations of weakness as statements of character, he became a superstar.

As culture has shifted, co-opting and radicalizing nerdery, sometimes driving Sandler's own tools of togetherness between us as wedges, the man has sustained. Parlaying his success into a modest media empire, he has created a career that allows him to mostly make silly movies with people he likes in locations they'd all like to visit. He and his friends go on vacation, make a funny movie and get paid. Not a bad deal, even if the end result isn't going to win anybody a Nobel Prize.

Along the way, though, Sandler has also made time for roles outside of what we would expect is his comfort zone, working with capital-A artists but still unpacking the conflicting emotions that made him famous in the first place. In Punch Drunk Love (2002), Barry Egan is essentially one of Sandler's broken little boys (mostly) grown-up and dropped into the real world, where his rages are scarier than they are funny.

Following his revelatory turn as Howard Ratner in the Safdies' Uncut Gems (2019), Sandler pivoted to Netflix and made Hubie Halloween (2020), a return to form as far as silly voices and beyond-broad comedy. And now, in the vast and varied plain between the two, there is Hustle.

Hustle makes sense, in terms of Sandler's career trajectory. This is still a passion project (for the basketball-is-life types) with moments of pure levity, but it is also more artistically ambitious than it might be, and grounded in unapologetic earnestness.

Stanley Sugarman (Sandler), a one-time college phenom who derailed his own playing career, has been with the Philadelphia 76ers organization for decades, in varying capacities. An acolyte and confidant of self-made, salt-of-the-Earth team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), it would seem that Stanley has finally graduated from a decade on the road scouting to a spot on the coaching staff. But the situation is fluid, as smug business types seem to say, and in the wake of a tragedy he is cast back out into the world of constant air travel and international fast food. Dejected in Spain, absent for yet another of his daughter's birthdays, Stanley finds a court genius hustling street ball. He, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), awakens something fiery and genuine in Stanley. He's a true talent, known to no one, a bolt of lightning unwittingly waiting to be bottled. Met with resistance from management, Stanley brings Bo back to Philly surreptitiously with a mission to coach him to a spot in the NBA.

In a way, Hustle is a relic of a bygone era. But who better to revive this sort of broad-strokes, overtly emotional underdog story than Sandler? And with director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals, 2018) behind the camera and a cast of current NBA stars supporting, the movie becomes something more than it might have any right to be. (It's got the first genuinely interesting training montage since — what, the '80s? — for one thing). R. 117M. NETFLIX.

BARRY merits a longer discussion but I wanted to at least mention it here, as its third season just concluded. Bill Hader and Alec Berg's damaged hit man comedy (sometimes it stretches the definition of the genre) is perhaps the best thing happening on television, and it reveals Hader as a student and creator of action moviemaking who, in creating a distinct, quiet cinematic language very much his own, transcends probably anybody working today. (See: Season 2, episode 5, ronny/lilly and Season 3, episode 6 710N for examples.) The supporting cast is also genius. R. HBO MAX, HULU, STREAMING.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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