By Preston Wilder
Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) are hustlers. So are their victims, filthy-rich Wall Street types who’ve been robbing people on a much grander scale than the girls could ever dream of. So, by extension, are we all, caught in the tendrils of capitalism – or at least that’s the point of this based-on-fact romp. “This whole country is a strip club!” declares Ramona, she and Des being strippers who prey on rich guys, drugging and robbing them – though only once the financial crisis has made legal business impossible: “Everybody’s had to get creative”.
Hustlers is an often-joyous movie, but with two caveats. First, the joyous energy includes lots of music montages (the soundtrack is extremely busy, ranging from Usher to Lorde to Frankie Valli), which are slick but a bit insubstantial. Second, the energy is undercut by the film’s penchant for repeating its message as often and explicitly as possible, hence that line about the whole of America being like a strip club. You’d have to be a very dense viewer to emerge from this movie without a clear understanding that (a) our heroines are business-minded, like the men they prey on – “I was CFO of my own f**kin’ corporation” – and (b) their hustles are implicitly revenge for being exploited, both as strippers and, indeed, as women (most are also ethnic-minority, while the men are white). “This game is rigged,” says Ramona, with the glib cynicism that informs the whole film. “And it does not reward people who play by the rules.”
Ramona is a leader, a woman with the magnetism of… well, a film star. Lopez is being touted for an Oscar, though the role is pretty superficial – but it gives her a chance to show off the pole-dancing moves (‘The Peter Pan’, ‘The Martini’) she learned for the movie, and also allows her to coast on her natural authority. “Climb into my fur,” she commands sweetly when first meeting Des on an icy rooftop, opening her coat to make room for the newcomer (later, she calls her daughter ‘bear cub’). Their relationship is the most complex note in a fun, party-minded movie.
Don’t expect much psychology here (the film is based on a true story – or a magazine article about a true story – so it may have felt unable to presume too much about inner lives): also in the gang are Annabelle, whose only real trait is a tendency to throw up when stressed, and Mercedes (“like the car”), who appears to be in a stalled, briefly-glimpsed relationship. Hustlers falls apart when it tries to explain its heroines, especially Destiny. “This is a story about control” is the first thing we hear – and a need for control seems to be what guides her, hence a recurring nightmare about being trapped in an out-of-control car with no driver, but the film’s vague attempt to link that to an unhappy childhood never gets off the ground. The good times – the hustles, the clubs, the pungent behind-the-scenes banter about boyfriends and sex – are the main attraction, Hustlers getting scrappy in the third act when the scams inevitably backfire.
This is part of a trend, of course, gender-flipped crime movies (see also Ocean’s 8 and The Kitchen) seeking to show that girls can be just as delinquent as boys. Like the more tormented Joker (definitely not part of this trend), Hustlers has a lot of Scorsese in its DNA: the drug-fuelled excess, the seedy milieu, the near-constant voice-over – yet the film, written and directed by a woman, also makes its mercenary girls unabashedly girly. They like to shop for expensive, frilly things like bags and shoes (even a fur coat); they even like to cook, though what’s in the oven happens to be a blend of ketamine and MDMA which they use to spike their victims’ drinks. The most intriguing thing about Hustlers is perhaps the way its hustlers use their feminine wiles, never breaking character as fun-loving bimbos, letting the male suckers think they’re in control even as they max out their credit cards. As Girl Power goes, it’s a bit old-fashioned, albeit subversive.
All this is true; yet the film remains joyous – and sexy too, walking the tightrope of showing some requisite skin without becoming part of the exploitation it’s decrying. The first hour especially, set in pre-crisis 2007 (when Des is making “more money than a goddam brain surgeon”, and not even thinking about illegal activity) is a straightforward good time, and even the constant admonition that financial types = hustlers has a certain Wolf of Wall Street-ish relevance. “We gotta start thinking like these Wall Street guys!” warns Ramona when the whole thing goes south. Late-stage capitalism, innit.
DIRECTED BY Lorene Scafaria
STARRING Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles
US 2019 110 mins