I put off watching this movie for a few reasons. I grew up playing basketball and have always been obsessed with it, and figured it would be a bad film. Second, as a movie critic, I’ve spent the last three months watching 7 or 8 movies a week, because it’s awards season and studios are releasing the stuff they think will get nominations. So I put it on the backburner.
In real life, Adam Sandler is a basketball player that loves the sport. So it’s great that his company and Netflix made this film, which he had to have had a blast doing.
Yes, this movie has some cliches and can be predictable, but it does provide some twists. And for critics that want to complain about cliches, or say that Sandler is finally doing a serious role – first, it’s a cliche for a critic to say that. Second, he’s shown he can act in Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems. And luckily for us, he does bring a few funny lines to this character – Stanley Sugarman – a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Since I’m a huge fan of the comic stylings of Albert Brooks, I thought this would be a lot like the movie in which he plays a baseball scout in the 1994 movie The Scout (Brendan Fraser). And while there was a scene that was straight out of Little Big League (involving pornography on hotel TVs), a fight scene from Bad Boys (the Sean Penn movie, not Will Smith one), and some Rocky and Jerry Maguire moments…it still all works. Even the ending scene on a basketball court reminded me of one of the most underrated movies ever made – Inside Moves from 1979 (John Savage, David Morse).
Sandler’s wife is played by Queen Latifah, who always has a natural acting style that works for me. She’s very supportive of him. It’s obvious the 76ers management undervalues him, and it was perfect casting to have Ben Foster play the bad guy. He’s the son of the Sixers owner, played by Robert Duvall (and they give Foster a bald head, to perhaps make them look similar).
The Sugarmans have a daughter that reminded me of the daughter in Lethal Weapon because…she can’t stop staring and drooling at the bad boy that’s friends with her dad, complete with comments at the dinner table while they’re all eating.
Latifah isn’t given a lot to do in this movie, but since she played basketball back in the day, she was probably thrilled to be involved. In fact, one of my complaints was just how many basketball players and cameos they used. The two main stars – NBA players Juancho Hernangomez and Anthony Edwards – are terrific. And how can you not laugh at the things Shaq and Charles Barkley say? And for us basketball lovers, you’ll enjoy seeing that Julius Erving is actually in a few scenes (when I was 10, I loved seeing Dr. J in the horrible film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh; when you’re 10-years-old, a movie can suck, but you still dig the basketball scenes).
So we see Sugarman go to Spain, but the player he’s there to scout isn’t playing that night. Instead of talking to the coach or watching the game, he decides to play some pick-up basketball. That’s where he sees Bo Cruz, hustling guys on the street (while wearing boots from his construction job). And what’s great is that basketball and boxing are probably the only two sports where you could discover some hidden talent that never made it to the big time. So we can buy the fact that Sugarman could turn this guy into an NBA star.
The trajectory of that story caught me off guard, in a good way. As we watch him training (in montages that go on way too long), we’re sure this is going to have a happy ending. Yet a few things happen on the way to the Forum that…have us doubting that outcome and really rooting for this underdog.
I often laugh when I see an obvious product placement in a movie. This film has a running joke with Pringles that I doubt is product placement, and it’s hysterical.
The score by Dan Deacon (no relation to Queen bassist John Deacon) is just perfect, giving a nice energy to the proceedings.
This movie is a must for any basketball fan, or fan of sports films. If you’re not, you’ll probably still enjoy it.
3 stars out of 5.