As I see it, you have three choices the next time an antisemite tells you “the Jews run Hollywood.”
1. Smile and reply “I know, aren’t Barbra and Steven doing a fantastic job?”
2. Look amazed and retort “Are you totally nuts? George and the gang don’t have time for all the minutiae; they delegate that kind of stuff out. Oh, and by the way, a Nicaraguan film student is coming in to replace Mel Gibson next month.”
3. Slam your fist on a desk and shout “Oh really? So how come Clint Eastwood has won as many ‘best director’ Oscars as Steven Spielberg? And how is that in the year Adam Sandler delivered a career-best performance in “Uncut Gems,” the Academy preferred to nominate an actor playing the freaking pope instead?
I was thinking about that 2019 Sandler performance a lot this weekend as I watched him knock another one out of the park in the Netflix movie “Hustle.” I’m invoking the wrong sporting analogy here, because his winning new movie is set in the world of basketball. But while it lacks the depth and desperation of the Safdie brothers’ brilliant drama about a debt-ridden Jewish jeweler diving head-first into the abyss, it’s buoyed by another wonderful Sandler turn and an unashamedly feel-good spirit that might make even Sen. Bernie Sanders crack a half-smile.
It’s one of two excellent new movies I just saw premiering on the small screen – the other being the Sundance hit “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which is out Friday on Apple TV+. And I don’t mind admitting that it was a relief to see a couple of great movies debuting on the streaming services – because they’ve been in shorter supply of late than Washington Post colleagues enjoying each other’s company.
I hate to pile in on Netflix when it’s enduring the kind of time that causes executives to lament that they picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue, but its movies have been nothing to write home – or in a newspaper – about for quite a while.
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In fact, I’m struggling to recall the last great one I saw. I had high hopes for both the Robert Harris adaptation “Munich – The Edge of War” earlier this year and another World War II thriller, “Operation Mincemeat,” which debuted in cinemas last month and is now on Netflix in most countries worldwide. But neither really caught fire, with the latter a particular disappointment given the sensational true story it’s based upon, which is arguably the greatest deception in the history of modern warfare.
The cast of “Mincemeat” feel like they’ve all escaped from the set of “Downton Abbey,” and it’s all so terribly, terribly prim and proper. I don’t mind prim and proper per se – “The Dig” is a great Netflix film, and that’s set in a prewar English country home – but “Mincemeat” is horribly stilted. I knew I was in trouble from the moment early on when Colin Firth declares: “I know I can be remote…”
Worse still is the fictional, Noël Coward-esque love triangle that distracts from the very real drama of a group of British intelligence officers trying to dupe the Nazis into believing the Allies are set to launch an invasion in Greece rather than Sicily in the summer of 1943.
The true-life tale has spawned a book by Ben Macintyre, a documentary and even a West End musical, and I’m sure all are more engaging than the disappointingly flaccid film. You might enjoy it if you know absolutely nothing about the real-life operation it’s based upon, but otherwise the only reason to see it is another winning performance by Matthew “Succession” Macfadyen.
It’s directed by John Madden, who has already mangled one classic war story with his misfiring “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” back in 2001. Carry on at this rate and he’ll have mishandled more wars than Vladimir Putin.
I hadn’t seen a film in a movie theater for six months before venturing out for the dud that is “Operation Mincemeat.” That’s the kind of luck Adam Sandler’s character might experience in “Hustle,” which is basically “Rocky” on a basketball court – right down to the Philadelphia setting and the rags-to-riches sports tale at its heart.
Sandler plays longtime Philadelphia 76ers scout Stanley Sugerman, which is exactly the kind of name you’d expect a Sandler schlub to be called. “Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares and eczema,” he tells a successful agent pal early on as he schleps from country to country in pursuit of the missing piece in the “76ers jigsaw,” and from one red-eye flight to the next.
By chance, he finds it in Spain in the lanky form of Bo Cruz (real-life Utah Jazz basketball player Juancho Hernangomez) – a talented court hustler who Stanley believes can be his own ticket back into coaching and get him off his fast-food-fueled life on the road and back home with wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Alex (Jordan Hull).
I can’t tell you that “Hustle” is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but director Jeremiah Zagar does just enough to keep all the familiar ingredients feeling somehow fresh. Sandler is a long way from his goofy golfing character Happy Madison, convincingly selling lines like “I love this game. I live this game” and “It’s you against you out there” as he does his best Mickey “Rocky” Goldmill impression.
When he says late on, “Everybody loves a redemption story,” he could be speaking for the audience of “Hustle.” I suppose an Oscar nomination is out of the question, George?
‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ (Apple TV+)
Any Jewish parent – or, in my case, parent of Jewish children – will tell you that there are a couple of years as your kids grow up when you will spend more time on the road than a long-distance truck driver. The reason? Ferrying your kids to bat- and bar-mitzvah parties. How bad does it get? Put it this way, by the time my second kid started the cycle, I was petitioning for the driving age to be lowered to 12 for girls and 13 for boys.
It says something about the charms of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” that I was happy to be transported – ouch, too soon – back to those days. The comedy-drama premiered at Sundance earlier this year, where Apple TV+ snapped up the screen rights quicker than you can say “the rugelach and pizza have arrived,” perhaps hoping to repeat its unlikely success with Oscar-winning “CODA.”
I love Sundance, and if you were to tell me I could only ever go to one film festival ever again, it would be the January indie bonanza in snowy Park City. But what plays well at Utah altitude rarely translates to global success, no matter how big a check is written out for the distribution rights, and it will be fascinating to see if “Cha Cha” can replicate the “CODA” phenomenon.
I was completely won over by young writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s movie, which has strong “Little Miss Sunshine” vibes with its tale of 22-year-old college graduate Andrew (Raiff) and his relationship with troubled young mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) – and yes, you can cross off “Character with quirky name” on your Sundance bingo cards now, and a special shout-out to anyone who also has “A character collects potato mashers” on theirs.
Andrew is like a modern version of Ben “The Graduate” Braddock, and he’s not interested in pursuing a future in plastics either. In fact, he’s struggling to find his way post-college: His girlfriend is a Fulbright scholar in Barcelona and he’s wasting his time working at a deserted Meat Sticks fast-food joint while sharing a bedroom with his kid brother in their stepfather’s home. Some of the best scenes involve Andrew with his loving mom, played by Leslie Mann, and grouchy stepdad Greg, played by Brad Garrett, who Andrew informs: “I feel like your purpose on Earth is to make things weird.”
Salvation comes in the unlikely form of a group of New Jersey Jewish moms, who hire him to be a “designated party orchestrator” at bat and bar mitzvahs after his “life-and-soul” shtick kick-starts things at one particularly moribund bat mitzvah. It is also here that Andrew meets and bonds with Domino and Lola.
There’s a lot to love about “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” though some of your enjoyment may rest on how believable you find Andrew and Domino as characters. I found Domino a little flimsily drawn and Andrew a little lacking in edge, but overall the movie was impossible to resist with its talk of “soul mates” and kissing tutorials.
After a surprisingly spiritual bar-mitzvah party, the non-Jewish Domino tells Andrew, “Sometimes I really envy Judaism.” So speaks someone who’s never done the return bat-mitzvah run three times a week with four sugar-rushing, gossiping girls in the car.
“Hustle” is on Netflix worldwide now, while “Operation Mincemeat” is in Israeli cinemas and elsewhere on Netflix. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is on Apple TV+ from Friday.