Movie Review: Hustlers

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We’re in a very interesting place in history where the time it takes to turn crisis into a movie script seems to be limited only by the presence of crisis. The 2008 financial free fall is an incredibly fertile ground from which to pluck both human and inhumane stories to present to a wider audience, often for the sake of assigning biographical blame. The Big Short and 99 Homes being more or less the two ends of Hollywood’s spectrum of takes on the Great Recession, the timeframe and its affect on the people in this country has implanted itself blatantly or subtly into a lot of the media we consume.

A lot of the stories have been macro, looking at the issues from a governmental perspective or (accurately) laying blame on the financial practices of the “too big to fail”. What Hustlers does, with ease, is present that era as a slice of life drama that has as much punch as any banking takedown or near-history reimagining.

Based on “The Hustlers at Scores”, a 2015 article for New York magazine, Hustlers is the story of a group of dancers that embezzle from the rich and powerful of New York City. We’re led through the narrative by Destiny played by Constance Wu, who excels at exuding a powerful loneliness throughout the film. Her entire life changes when she meets Ramona Vega, brought to life incredibly by Jennifer Lopez in what would be a career defining role if she hadn’t already played Selina.

(I say that in hopes of appropriately representing, but if we’re being honest…)

What follows the meeting of our two leads is a montage of sisterhood and exotic dancing that builds a foundation for the rest of the film. What’s interesting about this movie is that while it may seem on the surface like a female led crime drama, it feels more like Goodfellas than it does Widows.

Lopez’s Ramona is a clear cut hustler (I promise this is the only time I’m going to do this) someone who has been doing what she does at such a high level, for such a long time, that at this point it’s easier than walking. She’s a force of nature, a self proclaimed hurricane, that brings everything in towards her with destructive force. When Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, it’s presented as the result of Destiny’s machinations, but as time goes by, it become increasingly clear that nothing happens to Ramona by accident.

There’s a clear, powerful message of empowerment throughout the movie, that in no way panders or enforces itself upon the audience. The women in this movie, who quite often wear very little, never feel like objects or set dressing. Particularly during the main-stage dancing scenes, there’s a focus on the athleticism and artistry of the performers. The way these scenes are shot reminded me of the fight scenes from Creed, minus the tissue damage and viscera.

Hustlers is also undeniably drenched in sex appeal. Lopez’s first scene has her come out to dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” wearing what can be best described as a set of standard iPhone headphones stretched strategically over her body to keep her appearance PG-13. We really need to believe that the women in this film can bewitch with nothing more than subtle movements and the fluttering of eye lashes, and it doesn’t take anytime at all for that to seem obvious. Through the magic of montage, we see Destiny pick up the tricks of the trade, shepherded along by Ramona, until she’s become the perfect accomplice for bigger and bigger scores.

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The way we’re experiencing this narrative flips around the same time as the clear glitz and glamor begins to fade. When the nature of the job proper evaporates and the full weight of the financial crisis sets in, the tone of the movie shifts towards the criminal, ushered in by a fiery Ramona speech that’s equal parts justification and call to action. In its simplest form it boils down to this: they did it to everyone, so why shouldn’t we do it back to them.

This siren call speaks to anyone that’s ever felt hard done but hasn’t had the ability to do anything about it. Being a bystander to your own life as its crumbling around you, hoping for someone to lend a hand, dreaming that a break will just magically appear out of thing air. It’s difficult to imagine this idea of taking the power back wouldn’t appeal to just about anyone.

This idea, outside of being similar to the type of musing I’ve heard about Wall Street in general, is echoed throughout the movie. It’s a difficult shot, painting women that end up embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars as sympathetic figures while not lumping the sex workers into a group of women to pity because of their occupation, but Hustlers threads that needle. It never calls on you to feel sorry for these women because of the job the choose to do, but to instead feel a connection to their lives. It never feels the need to humanize women who strip because it’s made it clear that that’s not even part of the conversation.

What is an issue is that there are still victims. The men are still being drugged and taken for insanely large amounts of money. This is where you might think that there’s a justification within the narrative, or that inborn loyalty to the protagonists will keep you rooting for them with abandon, but that’s not the case. All of the scenes where the drugging and theft take place feel seedy and claustrophobic, often shot in exactly the same sequence, save for the new marks and new outfits. This repetition and darkness is always interspersed with shopping montages and smiles but you can always tell the happiness is tenuous.

The only person unaffected is Ramona.

Ramona is a towering achievement, played with an edge that borders on a violent psychosis. Lopez’s ability to play goddess, mother and mob boss within seconds of each other is a testament to the way the character is presented. You’re meant to love Ramona the way Destiny does and even at the end, when everything crumbles, she’s still magnetic.

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All movies that revolve around crime seem to stay with us based on whether or not you hope the criminal succeeds. Heat, Inside Man, The Town… all these movies are about people doing some pretty terrible things and yet you can’t help but find yourself drawn to them. And what puts this in a category unto itself is that it’s a recent and relatable story. We might not all strip but almost all of us were affected by the actions of the guys getting ripped off in this movie. And although we’d be furious if what happened to them happened to us, its certainly understandable to feel a cathartic glee that at least a few may have deserved it.

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