Hustlers

2019-09-13 12:29
 
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in 'Hustlers.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

The true story of a group of strippers who, after the financial meltdown of 2008 left them out of work and out of money, decide to get their own back by seducing then drugging and ripping off a string of Wall Street big-wigs who profited even as the rest of the country faced economic ruin.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Expectations are a funny thing. On the one hand, based on the rather uninspiring trailer and not being what anyone would call a fan of Jennifer Lopez’s work, I can’t say I went into Hustlers with the highest of expectations. At the same time, though, the advance buzz around the film was, almost without exception, exceptionally positive. The film has been praised, for its message of female empowerment, its nuanced characters, its barn-storming JLo performance, its Wall-Street-like (the movie) take on greed and corruption, and, most of all, for being a fantastically stylish and thrilling slice of cinematic entertainment. That many four- and five-star reviews couldn’t be wrong, surely?

As it turns out, I found Hustlers to fall right in the middle of those two extremes. Nowhere near as bad as I feared it would be but nowhere near as good as everyone else is making it out to be.

Hustlers is, indeed, an incredibly slick crime movie that moves at a fair clip and does at least seem to be trying to say something (though more on that in a bit). Writer/director, Lorene Scafaria, has already more than proven her mettle on the highly underrated Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (writing), the hilarious New Girl episode, Background Check (directing) and the indie-gem, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (both), but this is probably the most assured and stylish showing from her to date. It also has a truly excellent lead performance – though not, as advertised, from Lopez (who is good enough but for all that she commands the screen, she’s still just pretty much JLo) but from Constance Wu, who ups her game from her already excellent lead turn in Crazy Rich Asians, to deliver a performance that is both fiery and beautifully controlled.

Perhaps its greatest trick, though, is its matter-of-fact look at the world of these (presumably) less-than-top-class strippers. It is admirably non-judgemental and even-handed about what these women do for a living and, though none of the main cast come close to removing all of their clothes, the nonchalant background nudity and sometimes graphic sexual language gives the film a frankness that is often lacking in Hollywood stripper movies. At the same time, the surprising lack of titillation and objectification (despite an extended scene of JLo waving her most famous assets in our face for something like five minutes) means that even the more hardcore feminists out there have little to complain about.

There’s not much of a "male gaze" here, basically, and the Scafaria makes it abundantly clear which gender really holds the power in your average strip-joint. This makes sense considering that Hustlers is a largely female-led production, both behind and in front of the camera. I should, therefore, presumably make all the right noises about this being a major breakthrough in representation in cinema and give the film five-stars for that alone but, honestly, considering just how many fantastic female actors and filmmakers are around at the moment (seriously, in terms of the current generation, there are far more impressive young actresses than actors out there right now), you’ll pardon me if I see this as less of a big-deal than many so clearly do.

Still, tiresome political agendas aside, having a largely female cast and crew undoubtedly does work in this particular film’s favour. Hustlers the work of people who ensure that, despite its content, it always stay safely on the right side of lasciviousness.

Unfortunately, even with all this in its favour, Hustlers suffers from a single fatal flaw that undermines so much of what’s good about it: it is, when you get right down to it, shallow to the point of vacuousness. Despite committed performances, the central friendship between Lopez and Wu’s characters always feels just a bit under-developed, as do the characters themselves. That’s nothing in comparison to the other characters, who are more a collection of quirks (a sweet old lady who once got down with Frankie Valli; a young stripper (Riverdale’s breakout star, Lili Reinhart, wasted here) who vomits every time she is stressed – literally, a one-note gag) than even remotely rounded people.

Most crucially, while it is a vaguely interesting true story, the film is never as compelling, let alone as profound, as it so obviously thinks it is. Truth may often be stranger than fiction, but the film is surprisingly lacking in surprises and, at times, feels like less than the sum of its cinematic influences. As for its central thesis about exploitation and greed – basically, Wall Street is seedier than the seediest of strip clubs – it is all just a bit obvious. It’s all undoubtedly true, to be sure, but novel it ain’t.

And that’s a pity. For all that it seemingly wants to be the Big Short with (more) strippers, it’s mostly just a less fanciful Ocean’s 8. That’s not a terrible place to be, but it’s not something to go gaga over either.


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