Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Movie Review: Hustlers

Hustlers **** / ****
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria.
Written by: Lorene Scafaria based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler.
Starring: Constance Wu (Destiny), Jennifer Lopez (Ramona), Julia Stiles (Elizabeth), Keke Palmer (Mercedes), Lili Reinhart (Annabelle), Cardi B (Diamond), Lizzo (Liz), Madeline Brewer (Dawn), Mette Towley (Justice), Trace Lysette (Tracey), Mercedes Ruehl (Mom), Vanessa Aspillaga (Manuela), Tia Barr (Talia), Wai Ching Ho (Grandma), Usher Raymond (Himself), Frank Whaley (Wall Street CEO), Georgia Ximenes Lifsher (Crystal).
Director Lorene Scafaria makes no secret of her influences in Hustlers – opening the movie with the kind of long tracking shot, following someone through a nightclub, that Martin Scorsese has used often – most notably in GoodFellas, a film that that Scafaria has obviously seen many times, and lifts the structure and style from for her film. Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best (and considering what we’ve heard about Joker so far, she’s not the only one directly lifting from Scorsese this fall movie season). Hustlers isn’t the film that GoodFellas is (seriously, very few films are), in part because Scafaria’s film never really questions her characters, and their morality, the way Scorsese does in that film. GoodFellas is a riot, and wildly entertaining, until it’s not – and while the depiction versus endorsement argument has plagued Scorsese for his entire career – you have to be blind to not see he’s think the people in GoodFellas are awful people. Scafaria never quite gets there in Hustlers – and yet, to a certain extent that’s understandable. No one dies in Hustlers, and for the most part the people who get stolen from are bigger crooks then the strippers the film celebrates. Yet, I do think that when it’s all over the pleasures of Hustlers are more surface level than Scafaria’s influences.
But what surface level pleasures they are! After that dynamite opening shot, the film falls into a little bit of an exposition dump mode with Destiny (Constance Wu) explaining everything in voiceover (another GoodFellas lift) about her job at this strip club in Manhattan. She makes money – but not as much as the other girls. This is necessary place setting, but not all that exciting. The movie really takes off when we are introduced to Ramona – played by Jennifer Lopez in her best performance probably since Out of Sight way back in 1998. The film introduces us to Ramona as she dances on stage to Fiona Apple’s Criminal – and the money from the crowd covers the stage. As she walks off the stage, past an awestruck Destiny, Ramona says “Doesn’t money make you horny” and it may just be the best sequence in the entire movie.
You know where this going – Ramona will take Destiny under her wing, and the pair will make money – a lot of money. Destiny explains everything to us in the voiceover – how to spot the different kind of Wall Street guys, and take them for as much as you can. This is 2007, and times are good. Everyone is making money – and the strippers are no exception. The bottom falls out with the 2008 Financial Crisis – which is the same time Destiny gets pregnant, and leaves the game for a few years. But trying to get back into the job market as a single mother with little other than stripping experience is hard. And when Destiny hooks back up with Ramona – there is a new plan. No more dancing for dollar bills tucked into G-strings. Ramona and her crew – which also includes Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) – have a new plan. They go fishing – picking up wealthy men at bars, drugging them, and taking them to the club – where they will spend thousands on their credit cards, and the crew all gets a cut. This is, of course, illegal – but as Ramona correctly states, what are they really going to say? Are they going to call the cops and complain that they spent a few grand at a strip club? They going to tell their wives? Or are they quietly going to accept the loss, and move on.
Hustlers is not really a movie that thinks much of men – or much about them. The men in the movie are all the kind of Wall Street assholes who spout misogynistic bullshit right out of The Wolf of Wall Street. If they aren’t that, they’re the kind of meek, mild, sort of pathetic guys who want to be that, but can’t be – but are still at the club anyway. The girls sometimes have boyfriends – they aren’t depicted very much either, and aren’t much better – the fantasy of having a stripper for a girlfriend clashes with the reality of having a stripper for a girlfriend, when eventually they figure out that these are actual women, and not sex objects. At work, they play that part – but they are in control (mostly). They see the men in purely objective terms as well – it’s only fair, right?
Eventually, of course, the good times are going to end. The film contains an unnecessary framing device of having Destiny being interviewed by a report (Julia Stiles – who it’s nice to see again, although she isn’t given much to do) – which provides the voiceover narration (here, they should have stuck closer to Scorsese – you don’t need a reason for narration). The fall here isn’t the operatic one as in GoodFellas, but something far smaller, although it doesn’t seem like it for the women.
The cast here is good – Wu is kind of stuck with the blander leading role – the audience surrogate, although she’s quite good in it (I think there is a turn in her character very late where she becomes very desperate, and kind of pathetic, that doesn’t work – but other than that). The supporting cast is in fine for as well. But it is Lopez who owns Hustlers – in part because here is a role that allows her to both fully embrace her superstar status as J. Lo, and still play a character where that status makes sense. She takes control of the movie, and doesn’t let it go.
Overall, Hustlers is a tremendously entertaining film – and while the film is more style than substance, it isn’t devoid of substance. It does have something to say about the financial crisis, and the desperation it left people in, and on the nature of female friendships. No, the film isn’t GoodFellas – but what movie is?

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