TIFF Review: Superficial crimes in “Hustlers”

by Caribbean Chronicle
1:25 am UTC, September 14, 2019

Wall Street businessmen have been exploiting the working class and the economic system for years. There’s little that’s immediately sympathetic about them. So when a new film comes along that traces how a group of amenable strippers exploit and “hustle” these Wall Street hustlers, the premise promises to be compelling. It sounds fun and exciting, and for stretches of “Hustlers” it is exactly that.

Director Lorene Scafaria has an eye for pop-filmmaking and “Hustlers” is charming stuff. It has an excellent soundtrack, a great ability to tap into the communal viewing experience (some scenes seem created for an audience reaction – and played well at TIFF). A film about the poor trying to get back at the rich is always timely but the thing about “Hustlers,” which pointedly plays with who the eponymous hustlers are, is whether or not the film can truly marry its economic cultural critique with its earnest pop-attributes. 

About midway through the film, one of the characters turns to her peers in a moment of frustration. “We gotta start thinking like those Wall Street guys,” she asserts. Her point is clear. It’s foolish for her to keep worrying about right or wrong when these CEO’s and stock traders are inured from danger. And, that line is the key to the film. Or should be. It’s the ethos of the hustle that sees the women drugging and robbing these men as a way of making ends meet when stripping takes a hit after the recession. The women place the men, and themselves, in increasingly compromising positions as the situation becomes less fun and more macabre.

There’s a lot here to mine, potentially dark and gritty stuff that could incisively examine how the economic revolution in the USA is a lie, forcing everyone into exploiter/exploited dynamics, with little room for anything beyond that. But, the most consistently frustrating element of the film, is that despite Scafaria’s nodding to these issues (she writes the script as well) “Hustlers” plays fast and loose with its thesis – trapped between incisive assessment of American culture and fun lark about women behaving badly and feels torn about its allegiances.

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I love the poster for “Hustlers”. It is bright and colourful and shiny and filled with these glamour shots of some of the actresses in the movie. It’s not quite accurate. It’s an advertisement, not that product. Lizzo and Cardi B, both making strong impressions, have extended cameos more than roles and their placement on the poster is transactional, and even Keke Palmer (her image placed in a major spot) and Julia Stiles (third-billed) are not given much to work with. This is a two-person symphony between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, who play opposite each other. Wu is commendable as the audience surrogate, Dorothy, given ideas to hang her performance on rather than a real arc (a grandmother in debt, a troubled childhood, a bad marriage leading to single-motherhood) and Lopez is excellent as the all-knowing Ramona, beguiling Dorothy, and the guileless men and then the audience.

The main narrative at the Toronto International Film Festival when the film premiered last weekend was that the role finally justifies Lopez’s popularity as an entertainment figure. That narrative is faulty. Lopez has been a great actor since the nineties and since then has tossed up film roles (some good, some not) and music (almost all of it good) that makes her recognisable to persons of all-ages. We didn’t need “Hustlers” to prove her worth. But it does help that she is good in the film. “Hustlers” works best in moments that allow her to play her learned star-persona against the female cast. So, the film is most entertaining and thoughtful when we can watch these women – reminiscing about the difficulty of having a boyfriend as a stripper, or teaching the right moves to work the pole. The film is less sure and less effective when things get twisted. And it’s not great when the central hustle is the least effective part about a film called “Hustlers”.

The film ends emphasising that dichotomy. “Hustlers” is told using numerous flashbacks. The conceit works. Stiles, excellent and underused, is a journalist writing a piece on these women and their escapades. At the film’s end, Ramona – the mastermind – defends her choices. She doesn’t blame herself but the system. She blames an America that’s like a strip club where someone is always dancing and someone else is holding the cash. That could be a thoughtful assessment if the film were willing to hunker down and examine the seediness of all the film might nod to, but for a film about women hustling men driven to their limits, “Hustlers” is unusually palatable. Scafaria loves these characters so much you can feel her holding back from really presenting them as truly compromised or truly mercenary. “Hustlers” would benefit from some complexity, instead it feels safer than you’d expect

What does it mean that a group of disenfranchised women in America can only gain success by using the tricks of subterfuge gained from watching those who exploit them? It means that something is fundamentally wrong, doesn’t it? And it means that their own inadvertent complicity in the fruitless economic system needs examination. But, “Hustlers” can’t, or won’t, quite do that so we’re left with something not very incisive even if it’s mostly fun. This is entertaining and well-intentioned stuff, there’s something just a little bit more effective trapped inside, though.

Source: Stabroek News.

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