Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Hustlers” (2019)

Based on real events that were reported in a New York magazine article, writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film stars Constance Wu as Dorothy/Destiny who starts work at a strip club, with the hopes of gaining some financial stability so she can support her grandmother, but her inexperience and the club owner’s unfair pay mean that she barely has enough to get by. So when she witnesses veteran performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) on stage, effortlessly winning over the crowd with her confidence and talent, she looks to her for advice and the charismatic performer, herself a single mother, takes Dorothy under her wing and the two of them start making serious money by entertaining high profile, though silmy, Wall Street employees in the private rooms. But following the 2008 financial crisis, business at the club stops dead and the two women, eventually teaming up with fellow employees who are in a similar situation, resort to seducing, drugging and robbing rich patrons for considerable financial gain but things inevitably get out of hand and Dorothy soon realises that the good times surely won’t last forever.

Straight out of the gate, Hustlers gets off to a solid start as we are introduced to our main character and come to realise her plight – times are tough and she appears stuck in a particularly dodgy environment, not quite having the confidence or natural talent to make an impact and taken advantage of by the uncaring, exploitative higher powers of the club – and then we inevitably get to the point when our innocent, naive protagonist encounters the popular, confident and talented veteran performer and from here, the story goes up another level as we get to enjoy watching the two of them bond and share each other’s life stories, Ramona teaching her all she needs to make an impact, and this early “rags to riches” segment is compelling enough and the film also introduces a certain sense of style, showing off plenty of directorial flair as well as great use of the locations and, of course, the two central performances. And when the film reaches its first major turning point, when the 2008 crisis happens, the characters quickly go from “riches to rags” and here, there’s a good focus on character development as we can see what desperate situations they’re in, how hard it can be to gain employment, and the buildup to the girls’ shady scheme is enticing and interesting to witness.

But when the women set their plan in motion, the film hits a serious rough patch because rather than steal from the unpleasant, rude, chauvinistic and douche-y Wall Street bigwigs that were shown earlier in the film, their victims actually appear perfectly unaware and innocent, rich though they are, so when the women seduce, drug and steal large sums of money from them, their likability takes a very serious hit and it’s incredibly hard to empathise with characters who wreck the lives of people who don’t appear to deserve it; the first “conquest” is then followed by some post-heist revelry but as the film didn’t succeed in getting me on their side, I was unable to share in the glee felt by the characters and I believe that if they targeted those horrible, uncouth, sleazy types that we saw at the beginning, the film would do a better job at showing the women in a comparatively more favourable light and we would’ve been able to share in their delight and triumph, having stolen from those who truly deserved it.

From then on, the film continues its slump, content in having its characters doing bad things for no justifiable reason other than to line their own pockets, using the excuse of living in an unfair world where Wall Street suits get everything while they get nothing, and as the group rob from the rich and give to themselves, it remains a bit of a task to fully get on their side because as they continue to splurge on increasingly extravagant items and clinically drug their clients like it’s just another day at the office, some of the characters, Dorothy in particular, become a little too smug, uncaring and maybe even a little nasty – as highlighted in an interview scene where Dorothy aggressively points out that while the interviewer had a comfortable upbringing, she didn’t and so she’s apparently perfectly within her rights to make money by these unscrupulous means and how dare anyone judge her for it. Some audience members may empathise with the main characters for most of the film and enjoy watching them make things happen for themselves, taking no prisoners as they steal from the rich and make the money that they’ve been denied, but as the girls target those who don’t actually appear that bad, those who are certainly not as detestable as many of the other men in their lives, the film makes a fundamental mistake as it, perhaps unintentionally, casts these protagonists far too negative a light.

But although Hustlers has a regrettably shaky middle section, it thankfully gets much better in its final act when Dorothy begins to realise what she and the others have done and she changes for the better as she begins to display remorse over her actions, she’s nicer to the patient journalist who has been talking to her, and when “the jig is up”, she takes a certain course of action that tells us how she wants to look out for her daughter and though she began to display slightly negative feelings towards Ramona, the two of them eventually make up and both display kind feelings towards each other, showing that there’s no bad blood between them. Though it comes a little too late in the game, the change in characterisation is admirable and beneficial to the film and the final act of Hustlers is where it gets its mojo back as “the chickens come home to roost” and it’s here, when things take a downward turn and the good times seem to come to an end, where the film is injected with much more tension and drama; characters are humbled, it’s easier to empathise with them, and the closing of the film does well in getting us concerned about what will happen to the group.

Taking on a very different type of role from the ones she played in Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off The Boat, Hustlers gives Constance Wu a real chance to show what she can do and in this film, she does well as the central protagonist – starting off as a naive and uncertain everyday woman who becomes enticed by the larger-than-life Ramona and gradually acclimating to life in the strip club as she grows in confidence and ability and goes on to be more proactive, getting involved in the central scheme and doing what it takes to make money. This film is indeed the biggest showcase of Wu’s performing ability and she carries the film rather well – believably displaying vulnerability and naivety at the start and then growing in confidence as the film progresses – but on the other hand, she can often appear cold and nasty and while it’s perfectly fine for a main character to have flaws, Wu is sometimes unpleasant during the film and makes it a little difficult to truly support her during the film’s events.

But, as several others have already noted, it’s Jennifer Lopez who steals the spotlight in this film; making an especially bold, eye-widening and scintillating entrance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”, she’s certainly got the look and the moves of a professional performer and she brings plenty of energy, charisma, confidence and natural showmanship to the role of “world weary veteran who the protagonist learns from” and she dominates every scene that she’s in, demanding attention as she brings the material to life and proves that no-one else could’ve done it better. She also appears genuine and affable in scenes where she bonds with and “protects” her co-workers and as well as her impressive physical appearance, she acts well in the emotional scenes and is the most likeable cast member – managing to remain the most supporable even considering the dodgy deeds they do.

Elsewhere, Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer are decent as Annabelle and Mercedes – the other members of the central group – but they aren’t especially deep characters and don’t make half as much of an impact as Wu or Lopez, plus Annabelle’s defining characteristic is merely throwing up all the time for some reason, Julia Stiles is good as reporter Jennifer, Mercedes Ruehl fits in nicely as matriarch Mom and it’s good to see that she’s still performing in things, the great Madeline Brewer pops up as the hopeless Dawn, and Cardi B (apparently, she’s something of a big deal in the music business these days?!) provides a certain jolt of energy, but is often hard to take, as the mouthy Diamond. It’s a shame that Lizzo wasn’t in it more, though, because she’s gorgeous and I get the feeling that she would have provided some big laughs to the feature. Who knows – maybe she’s just not a strong enough actress.

And although it has problems in the story department, Hustlers makes up for this by having plenty of style; the colours are striking, the cinematography is appealing and the whole thing is directed well by Scafaria since she makes sure to include enough slow motion shots, freeze frames and several other creative camera moves to make the Goodfellas-y narration come to life and in the racier sequences, she manages to create a sexually charged atmosphere without going overboard. She makes sure that the girls’ character journey is front and centre but, crucially, she doesn’t always paint the characters in a positive enough light, so because of this tone, she makes it difficult for (some of) us to care about the characters, and she also attempts to blend the drama with humour but, despite the good feeling between the main girls, the film isn’t funny and any attempts at comedy aren’t pulled off properly.

Hustlers also has a superb soundtrack as it blends era-specific tracks (Britney Spears, Sean Kingston) with older songs (Frankie Valli for that Goodfellas vibe) and it also uses Chopin pieces brilliantly, especially during Ramona’s pole dancing demonstration where the accompanying music gives her a graceful, balletic and otherworldly aura. We also hear the aforementioned Fiona Apple song, which brings J-Lo out in some style, and the film also makes perfect use of Scott Walker’s rendition of “Next” – the lyrics of which fit perfectly because it exemplifies the girls’ clinical and unemotional treatment of their “marks”, moving from one to the other with little tenderness or feeling, unknowingly wrecking their lives – and Lorde’s “Royals” is used in spectacular fashion in a wonderfully shot and effective closing scene where things come to an end for the girls, the lyrics again being a perfect fit since it suggests that these girls came from nothing and all their biggest dreams and fantasies are destined never to come true.

Hustlers has plenty of style, a smartly chosen soundtrack, and a memorable performance from Jennifer Lopez, but the characters’ misguided actions and frequent unlikability affect the film greatly and make it too difficult to truly get involved in the story.

★ ★ ★

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