By Dwight Brown, NNPA News Wire Film Critic
When comedic actor Adam Sandler took on the difficult role of a diamond dealer in the thrilling and captivating film Uncut Gems, he crosses a chasm. It was as if he had left his past behind and was determined to become a multi-faceted actor. Hustle proves this point.
Sandler isn’t exaggerating Stanley Sugarmen’s basketball scout persona. He lives it. Sugarmen is the attentive and capable employee of the Philadelphia 76ers. He travels the world in search of exceptional talent. Finding that “missing piece” is almost an allusive attempt, but it goes on. His brave efforts are highly respected by franchise owner Rex (Robert Duvall): “You never took shit from anybody.” But not by the boss’ conniving son, Vince (Ben Foster).
When Stanley finally finds an uncut gem of a player in Spain, a streetballer named Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), he thinks his career is in full swing. But Vince has every intention of sabotaging Stan’s protegee. Will Stan ever take a break?
For basketball fans, this sports drama/comedy produced by LeBron James is heaven. Icons like Shaq and Dr. J make cameos. Dunks, three-pointers, trash talk and other mainstays of the game are at stake. The heart of the film is still Stanley’s journey from businessman to outcast, mentor and, hopefully, savior. It’s a transition well developed and documented by Will Fetters (A star is born) and Taylor Materne’s thoughtful, humorous and heartwarming script.
Sugarman’s personal and professional life is well established. His family is a bedrock (Queen Latifah plays his wife Teresa and Jordan Hull his daughter Alex). His superficial colleagues (Jaleel White as Blake, VP Player Staff). His friends support him (Kenny Smith as Leon a sports agent and old pal).
The challenges he faces from past mistakes and the mixture of respect and derision he faces charts his path. It’s no wonder he’s ready to coach a flawed but talented basketball player. They are both haunted and stalked by past human errors – bad reputations that only success can put to rest. Even in the toughest times, the fatherly scout remains enthusiastic about his new charge: “This guy is like Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby, Lisa Leslie raised him and Alan Iverson was the babysitter. .”
The strange man character weighs heavily on Sandler’s shoulders, but he’s more than up to the task. His emotions float close to the surface or burst out. His humor is twisted and funny when needed. Yet the gravity of certain moments, like the revelations that expose his dishonesty, are rendered with a sensitivity that will keep audiences hoping Stanley will prevail even as his failures pile up.
Director Jeremiah Zagar (We the animals) finds the right tone for the procedure. He directs the actors as if they were in a hybrid film which was a combination of Ballers, Rocky, Credo and hoop dreams. With help from editors Tom Costain and Brian M. Robinson, the scenes are thankfully short and to the point. An engaging and eclectic collage sequence, during one of Bo’s money-raising games, blasts pop-up images across the screen like a shuffled deck of basketball cards. Those quick bursts of video energy near the end of the film help keep the momentum going.
Note that the cinematography (Zak Mulligan, We the animals) deftly catches moving balls, players charging down the field, and intimate moments when Sandler and Latifah share bedroom scenes — the kind that makes husbands and wives friends and lovers.
Dan Deacon’s skipping musical score (Ascension) is also commendable. A very hip playlist includes selective rock, rap, soul and hip hop tracks in all the right places. The clip of Tierra Whack singing “Heaven” is perfectly timed: “Angels are watching over me…I was blind, now I can see…All you did for me…I knew you would end to arrive at.”
It’s never a real movie unless Queen Latifah is in it. Utah jazz player Juancho Hernangómez could find himself blacklisted as an actor after his strong showing. Minnesota Timberwolves 1st draft pick Anthony Edwards as Bo rival Kermit Wilts talks a lot of slaps. He’s as brutal as Bo is hypersensitive.
The heart of this film is still Sandler and his meditative portrayal of a man set in search of his day of reckoning. It’s a welcome surprise to see a comedic actor, who once faced ridicule for his blue-collar movies, earn a reputation as a nuanced performer who commands respect.
Visit NNPA News Wire film critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.
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