Crime pays on the big screen, or at least it does until Johnny Law enters the frame.
That’s true of most gangster movies. Living large looks amazing until those good times come to a screeching halt. Martin Scorsese proved that with gangster epics like “Goodfellas.” So does “Hustlers,” based on a remarkable true story.
We follow four enterprising gals who find a new way to pay the bills. They drug and rob high rollers until their credit cards cry, “Uncle!”
Too bad “Hustlers” can’t make the con, or the comeuppance, worth our attention.
The film starts strong as we watch neophyte stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) getting acclimated to her new, high-end club. The bosses are as crude as you fear, but veteran dance Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) is there to provide comfort and counsel.
And to pose like a high-end model during a Milan fashion shoot.
Ramona is a goddess with the moves to prove it. And she’s there for all her sisters. The film’s first third shows her growing closer to Destiny, who laps up Ramona’s life lessons. There’s nothing revelatory here, but it sets the story pieces in motion.
Life is good for a beautiful stripper in New York City circa 2007. A year later, everything changes courtesy of the Wall Street collapse.
Now, Destiny is saddled with a dead-end beau and towering bills. So she re-teams with Ramona who has a new plan to rake in the Benjamins. They’ll drug clients and squeeze their credit cards for every nickel.
It’s foolproof, especially since the men would rather swallow those exorbitant bills than tell their wives where the money went.
FAST FACT: The women behind the scam that inspired ‘Hustlers’ got a virtual slap on the wrist for their crimes.
The screenplay takes us behind the scenes of a snazzy strip club without the insight to make this world pop. Sure, Lopez gives a primer on Pole Dancing 101, but beyond that there’s little new here.
Worse, these strippers are robbed of any beguiling traits. They’re gold-hearted gals who gossip sweetly and always have each other’s backs.
Girl power, ya know? It’s what matters most today in Hollywood, trumping story, character and screenplay considerations.
They fare far better than the men in “Hustlers.” They’re either oily corporate types, cowards, abusers, jerks or wallflowers. They think nothing of treating women like objects and are so easily separated from their money it makes babies look clingy with their lollipops.
Imagine the uproar had the genders been reversed and every on-screen female got that shallow treatment. Oh, the hashtag campaign that would ensue.
It’s one thing to short change all the male characters, but why do we learn so little about these “Hustlers?” Just who is Destiny beyond a single mama devoted to her grandma? Why don’t we see Ramona in an unguarded moment?
The narrative cares more about victimhood than character development.
When Ramona asks her Old Navy boss for a shorter shift, he treats her so badly he should be hauled into HR. Of course this can happen in real life, but the totality of the picture is so very predictable.
We’re meant to view these women as victims of America, Inc. and, more importantly, Big Capitalism. They have to drug and steal, don’t you know? How else can they afford flashy cars, expansive apartments and gorgeous mink stoles?
Yes, there’s plenty of wish fulfillment here, but that’s a trope from many gangster flicks. What’s the difference? Those films don’t circle back and say, ‘eh, the stiffs had it coming.’ Even the journalist interviewing Wu during the film’s framing device shrugs at the caper gone south.
“I don’t feel sorry for them,” says Julia Stiles, setting a fine example for on-screen reporters. Yes, the 2008 financial crisis proved a debacle, and plenty of perpetrators (including government types) walked away scot free. How that justifies what these ladies do for own selfish needs is something the movie won’t dare address.
Morally speaking, “Hustlers” is as gross as the leading ladies are gorgeous.
Seen as a dramatic effort, it’s just plain underwhelming. Yes, Lopez captivates as Ramona, but we rarely see the soul behind the flawless facade. The same is true for Wu’s character. We’re told she had a rough childhood, oh so briefly, and whenever she gets flush with cash she hands her grandma a thick wad of cash.
No questions asked, or answered. Isn’t grandma the slightest bit curious?
Ramona spits out the movie’s critical dialogue early on, and it’s a message the narrative hammers for the rest of its running time.
“This game is rigged and it doesn’t reward people who play by the rules,” she explains. Is it any wonder anti-Wall Street director Adam McKay helped produce this?
The irony of these women drugging greedy capitalists in order to be greedier capitalists is lost on everyone involved here.
The only male character granted any grace is Usher, playing himself during a visit to the women’s club. He even gets his own slo-mo montage. Then again, slow motion is used endlessly here. All the better to see these women as fierce and empowered.
Did we mention they’re empowered … and fierce?
After all, what’s more empowering than stealing and drugging complete strangers to support your shoe addiction?
View this post on Instagram
The film’s score features a few strong musical flourishes beyond the oh, so obvious pop hits. Those piano blasts suggest a production willing to break free of its generic trappings. So do some well choreographed sight gags, including the women’s early attempt at drug production.
Those moments don’t last long.
Your average Scorsese film brims with dark humor, intelligence and peeks into the human condition. Most of what happens in “Hustlers” is perfunctory, rarely moving beyond a glossy TV production. Even when the girls celebrate Christmas excess with a prayer the movie isn’t wise enough to see through the charade.
“Hustlers” argues that drugging and stealing is A-OK if you’re taking on the PatriarchyTM or Wall StreetTM. Even if you agree you won’t find the film compelling enough to care.
HiT or Miss: “Hustlers” spins from an incredible true story but lacks the artistry to make it more than a glorified re-enactment.