Hustlers has the makings of a successful movie. A certified superstar in Jennifer Lopez, two solid A-Listers in Constance Wu and Cardi B, and three names that are only gonna get bigger in Lizzo, Kiki Palmer, and Julia Stiles. They’re all in revealing outfits and insane shoes doing sexy dances on the pole.
How can this NOT be a hit?!?!
I’m not sure, but about thirty minutes into it I was painfully aware that the writers and directors had pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.
The movie opens in 2007 New York, at a club based on the legendary Scores (the movie is based on the true experiences of dancers from there as told in the book The Hustlers at Scores). We meet Destiny (Wu), who is starting out, and after paying for the right to dance there and tipping all the men who make sure she gets to work the VIP is barely clearing any cash.
She teams up with former centerfold and veteran dancer Ramona (Lopez), and pretty much the money is rolling in. Lizzo and Cardi B are around to add some flava and tell us how things really go down. There are some fun moments, but honestly, the first forty minutes seems like it was adapted from Exotic Dancing For Dummies.
The dialogue is simplistic. The acting is good but not standout. It’s a fine outing for Cardi and Lizzo, the do fine with what they’re given, which isn’t much.
Crash & Burn
Fortunately for this movie, all good things must come to an end. And that lets us get into somewhat meaty plot points. The market crashes. The girls aren’t making money cuz the Wall Street guys are unemployed and broke. There’s an unexpected pregnancy.
The girls eventually team up to start scamming the remaining fat cats. And as all things do, they escalate. The ladies go from getting ’em drunk so they’re loose with their credit cards to drugging them and maxing out the cards themselves.
This gives us something to sink our teeth into. But it’s still a very light, low calorie meal.
We Are Family
This movie is definitely told from the ladies’ point of view and is incredibly sympathetic to their cause. And it’s easy for us to be on their side. The economic crash hurt millions of people. They did what they needed to survive. And I was with them to a point.
But they try to portray themselves as a family banding together to get through tough times. A point belabored over and over again, and finally hits us over the head with the Christmas party scene. I get it. You’re criminals with a heart. Even the kids and grandmother are there.
But they’re not really family. They’re a criminal cabal and that eventually, sort of, catches up with them. But by the time it does, blame has been shifted off the ringleaders of Ramona and Destiny, and shifted to drugged out girls brought in late in the game. And the blame is mostly on the new girl being out of control and sloppy, not on the fact that they actually hurt people along the way.
Ramona and Destiny shoulder very little burden, and we’re made to believe that they did it for the kids, for Nana, not themselves. But this is belied by the fact they’re sporting chinchilla coats and $1,000+ bags. I get that if you’re gonna be in the life, you gotta live the life. But it cuts in to the amount of slack and sympathy I’m willing to give.
And they never play up the desperation angle. Destiny’s nana is clearly in hard times and selling her jewelry just to get by. One dancer was kicked out by her parents. But none of the main dancers are junkies, messes, or facing homelessness. They’re not sympathetic, their Wall Street marks aren’t sympathetic. This is a movie devoid of good guys.
JLo is getting some Oscar buzz for her role. I have one, clear, and unshakeable belief on this idea: JENNIFER LOPEZ IS NOT GOING TO BE NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR for this role. This is easily the best performance of her career, but that’s a pretty Lo bar to clear (I’m looking at you, Maid In Manhattan).
Yes, she put in long hours learning to work the pole. But from her motherly instincts to her sassy-like-a-boss attitude to her fierce wardrobe, you don’t really feel like she had to push herself very much. It’s like a version of what Jenny would have been if In Living Color hadn’t worked out in the early 90s.
Part of me wants to say this is far superior to Glitter. But Glitter was campy and quickly became a cult classic. I still love to grab a bottle of Dark Eyes vodka and some off-brand Sprite and watch. But Hustlers is just cinematic enough and avoids the camp factor, that it will be a quickly forgotten film, just another line on the IMDb pages of several solid stars.
Plus the score tries too hard and quickly becomes annoying.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Johnnie Walker John Walker Blended Scotch Whisky. At $3,450(US) a bottle, it’s just what the Wall Street kings would be drinking. But I’ll take mine without Ramona’s home baked roofies.