Just googling a bit to find dozens of images of Adam Sandler in the front rows of NBA games, many of them postcards alongside industry peers like Billy Crystal, Jack Nicholson, Kevin James and Kate Hudson.
A devoted fan of the New York Knicks –like Spike Lee or Jerry Seinfeld–, the actor also enjoys watching other teams come to the Staples Center in the Big Apple, his place of birth and residence.
And he also enjoys bringing that passion to the movies. By the end of his first decade of career, in 2000, he managed to include a sequence on a basketball court. It was in The son of the devilthe film in which he played the youngest and most clumsy son of Satan, where he stars in an unusual sequence that has little or nothing to do with a conventional sport game.
In 2019 added another chapter. in the bright Rough diamonds (Uncut gems), by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, played a jeweler and gambling addict who deposits all his luck in a game between the Bolton Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers that actually happened in the year 2012. The film even featured with Kevin Garnett, part of the first squad at the time, playing himself.
This striking story between the fascination for sports and the professional career of the 55-year-old actor leads to Claw (Hustle), the tape that premiered this month with great success on Netflix. Produced by Sandler and megastar LeBron James, the story features Stanley Sugerman, a Philadelphia 76ers worker who moves around the world in search of the next basketball gem.
At a complex moment in his career, while on a trip to Spain, he is dazzled by Bo Cruz, a prodigious but incomplete young man played by Juancho Hernangómez, a professional player who is part of the ranks of the Utah Jazz and has been in the NBA since year 2016. That discovery prompts the protagonist to put at risk both his long career as a talent scout and the well-being of his family, made up of his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull).
The interpreter of billy madison he understood that the story he had in his hands it was not meat to make another of his comedies in which he pushes the limits of the absurd. He has done too many of those, especially with Netflix (The Ridiculous 6, the worst week), a company to which he is linked by a millionaire agreement since 2014.
This time a complex objective was proposed as the first goal: to commit director Jeremiah Zagar to the project, a filmmaker with origins in the documentary who had successfully turned to fiction in the independent film We the animals. Released in 2018, that film followed a boy in the discovery of his sexual identity and earned him comparisons with Moonlight (Moonlight) and with the cinema of Terrence Malick.
Zagar initially turned down Sandler’s offer, saying it was too different from his pursuits as a filmmaker. However, he revisited the opportunity and the two began discussing possible ways to land the Stanley Sugerman and Bo Cruz plot.
They found full agreement that the tape should summon members of the NBA. In this way, a large contingent of retired and active basketball players who play themselves (Shaquille O’Neal, Luka Doncic, etc.) were brought together, and others were also given characters with some development, such as the Serbian Boban Marjanovic, former player and current commentator Kenny Smith and young Anthony Edwards. In its review, The New York Times noted that “getting solid performances” from those names ended up being “Zagar’s real achievement.”
Director and star also agreed that his interpretation demanded a different job than usual. “I think he was open to a more restrained, naturalistic style of acting. He wanted to do something that felt real,” the filmmaker specified to IndieWire. “What amazed me about Adam is that he doesn’t do any nonsense: you feel its authenticity in every shot. It’s unusual for all your shots to be good. Make no mistake. It’s a quality that only the best actors have.”
“Sandler plays Stanley with an inner sadness, a mix of weariness and resilience, and a stubborn faith in the game that leaves you moved, excited and completely convinced,” Variety magazine celebrated of his performance.
With those strengths defined, Claw sticks to a dramatic development that doesn’t reinvent the sports movie genre. But if the fight against the adversity of its main character is followed with passion, it is also because of the way Zagar films the game, providing images that are easier to associate with documentary than with fiction.
To define that this was the correct approach, they watched hours and hours of basketball, as well as sports films like Rocky (1976) and its spinoff, believe (2015), and the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century portrait (2006), in which the French star was followed during a single Real Madrid match and captured through 17 synchronized cameras.
Check Wild bull (1980) seemed like a moment of enlightenment. The tape they were preparing included several games, always under the idea of each one looking different, in a similar way to what Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece proposed. “We thought, ‘Maybe we can imbue an emotional idea visually and sensorially.’ So we saw Wild bull and we stole everything we could,” the director told The Playlist with a laugh.