Movie Review: “Hustlers” (2019)

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and “inspired” by a true story, “Hustlers” is one in a long line of movies that pretends to be deeper and smarter than it is in reality.  At one crucial moment for the viewer, Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona offers a laughable observation comparing society with strip clubs and questioning who is throwing the money and who is doing the dance.  The comment offers the stark simplicity of having a character look up and announce that the sky is indeed blue.

As if the others didn’t know.  As if the audience would be unaware.  Clearly Scafaria feels it is important to make the point clear, to drive it home. It occurs in the perfect spot to purposefully be one of the film’s big takeaways.  It is impossible to know Scafaria’s intent with the line, but it comes off as either the film being wholly unaware of itself or believing that the audience is simply too dumb to have gotten it, and the feel is more of the latter than the former.

The tale, mainly told by Destiny (Constance Wu) to a reporter, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), is about how Destiny and Ramona became friends while dancing at a strip club and eventually started drugging men in order to fleece them.  Up until the drugging, the movie is quite clear that every line Destiny, Ramona, and their cadre cross is okay – they’re only hurting rich Wall Street guys who have all stolen their money anyway (in this world, to be successful on Wall Street requires illegal actions and therefore any rich Wall Street guy is fair game).  Frankly, the film is even, mostly, okay with the drugging.  It may be going too far if they take too much money from a guy whom they’ve given the drug cocktail they made, but even that is debatable.

Ramona and Destiny may not be heroes in the movie, but they are portrayed as heroic.  They are fighting the good fight against the scum of Wall Street as the bouncers and managers and everyone else in the strip club takes a cut of the women’s hard earned wages.

Undoubtedly, there is an element of turning the tables here which “Hustlers” would like to highlight.  The women go from being the victim to victimizing others.  But, the people they turn into victims don’t deserve it (at least not each and every one of them, and there’s certainly a question about appropriate vs. inappropriate response as well and these women’s response is almost certainly the latter), so the argument falls flat.  There is also a serious problem with the notion that it is okay to hurt others because you have been hurt yourself, and the movie doesn’t seem to acknowledge or accept that idea.

Throughout all of these shenanigans, there is very nearly a love story.  Like everything else it is poorly expressed, but Destiny certainly has a thing for Ramona and it is likely reciprocated.  Neither woman talks about it, neither acknowledges it, but it is there, submerged.  Like so much else in the movie, it is also a disappointment.  While the women have feelings for each other, those feelings don’t seem to affect their actions, at least not in recognizable ways.  So, if they don’t talk about the feelings and they don’t act on the feelings and they don’t do anything differently because of the feelings it seems a little silly to include the non-story at all.

Although I have covered much of what doesn’t work, the entirety of “Hustlers” is not a disappointment.  As you may have read elsewhere, it is true the Lopez is a force of nature here.  She owns every scene she is in, as the character quite clearly is meant to do.  There is a palpable energy to Ramona, just as there is an energy to much of the movie.

“Hustlers” is interested, as strange as this may seem, in the glitz and glamour of the lifestyle of the women in question.  It feels like a series of montages of what happened and when and does so with little thought to going deeper.  The thing is, such scenes work on an individual basis.  They don’t always have more relevance but they are wonderful to see and certainly buoyed by the presence of Cardi B, Lizzo, Mercedes Ruehl, and the rest of the cast.

There is fun to be had with “Hustlers,” but every time it feints towards deeper relevance or attempts to show its characters as anything remotely resembling heroes, it exudes falsehood  Moments that exist for fun, like Usher randomly showing up to party at the strip club for no particular reason, are great.  They are unimportant in a movie that feels overlong, but they’re great.

I hate to end the review this way, but maybe the whole thing is just like a strip club – it gives the semblance of deep love and affection, but really is all about teasing the audience who, at the end of the night, come up empty.

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photo credit:  STX Entertainment

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