by Philip Price
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu & Julia Stiles
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
"This is a story about control, my control; control of what I say, control of what I do and this time I'm gonna do it my way. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Are we ready?" And so, begins the title track to Janet Jackson's fourth studio record, 1986's Control. It is of no happy accident that this is also how writer/director Lorene Scafaria's “Hustlers” opens as we are introduced to Constance Wu's Dorothy AKA Destiny, the "new girl" at a strip club in New York City where the women are fast, and the money is loose. There's no real introduction to speak of in terms of who Destiny was up to this point in her life, but more Scafaria's screenplay-taken from Jessica Pressler's 2015 New York Magazine article-tells us this is who she is now and despite whatever it might have been that brought her to this point it is now that she is finally ready to take some...ahem, control...of her life. It is more this mentality we are first and foremost introduced to than it is necessarily the character of Destiny, which is why it makes complete sense that she immediately recognizes in Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) an opportunity. Ramona is the headliner of this strip club if you will-the one all the wall street guys pay to see-and Ramona barely has to remove a piece of clothing in order to cover up what is already bare with the cash that is thrown her way. Scafaria and Lopez (along with many choreographers, camera operators and set designers) craft an introduction to the character that not only elicits every single reason Lopez became and has remained a star, but it also illustrates very clearly why-even in the most vulnerable of situations-Ramona has absolute confidence in herself and in her ability to gain...control...of a situation. Ramona commands the room and everyone else in that room knows she commands it which is why Lopez is perfect for the role, but this quality also serves as the reason Destiny, with almost zero hesitation, walks up to Ramona and asks her to mentor her. It is in Destiny that Ramona also sees opportunity: a new, young, beautiful Asian girl is an asset in anyone's hands, but in Ramona's she can set in motion a string of clients that will garner them both a fair amount of cash flow. It is from this initial meeting that “Hustlers” dives into examining how these women-who are regarded as little more than insignificant pawns on a chess board-are more in control than that of the Wall Street types who fancy themselves the kings, bishops and knights. That is, until the control becomes more about power and Destiny and Ramona's scheme-much like the film itself- begins to fall apart; the weight of what has been taken on becoming too mangled to maintain in any effective manner.
Beginning in 2007, as Ramona and Destiny make each other's acquaintance, everything seems to be as glamorous as one could imagine it to be in the world of stripping. Ramona is cleaning up every night, Destiny is learning the ropes from her new mentor along with the likes of Cardi B and Lizzo while other dancers such as Justice (Mette Towley) and Tracey (Trace Lysette) make it all look easy. And while management can certainly be a little sleazy from time to time (as personified by Konstantine Drakopoulos and Dov Davidoff) the girls feel mostly taken care of thanks to their den mother who they simply refer to as "Mother" and who is played by the legendary Mercedes Ruehl (“Big”). Nights are good as Ramona illustrates to her new apprentice the levels of Wall Street guys that stroll into the club and how best to take advantage of each of them along with setting a certain expectation for each rung on the ladder. Everyone is riding high in as all of these brokers and other financial insiders or what have you seemingly feel no remorse in throwing gobs of money at women's asses with no thought or foresight into what would happen less than a year later. And so, the recession then happens, and things dry up; the traffic in the strip club slows as does the cash thus leaving Ramona to find new, more creative ways to sustain the life style she and her teenage daughter are now accustomed to. This is when Scafaria's adaptation of the story steps back from the main narrative and inserts Pressler-who is here called Elizabeth and portrayed by Julia Stiles-into the story as she interviews Destiny in 2015 letting the audience in on the fact that whatever transpires between she and Ramona that Destiny seemingly comes out okay even if their relationship doesn't. This is the linchpin on which Scafaria bases the drama of her film, the tension of the whole piece as we are never privy to Ramona's side of the story aside from small hints dropped by Stiles' character when what she is being told by Destiny doesn't seem to jive with what Ramona told her. This creates a muddy middle in which Scafaria must find the clearest sense of unbiased truth about what really went down, but it essentially boils down to that, after the recession and after Destiny moved on for a few years to get married, have a child and then see that marriage fail only to be left alone to take care of both her daughter and grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) that she was pulled back under Ramona's wing where the two of them along with Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) began taking what they felt belonged to them by manipulating and drugging unsuspecting victims in order to rob them of their cash and max out their credit cards leaving these men in awkward scenarios where they were too embarrassed or afraid to admit to how this happened.
As strange as it may sound, it is insanely fun to watch these plots unfold as we, the audience, are made to feel as if these repulsive men more or less deserve what is coming to them. As Ramona puts it, "...these Wall Street guys stole from everybody! Hard working people lost everything and not one of these douchebags went to jail! The game is rigged, and it doesn't reward people who follow the rules." In their eyes-or at least Ramona's-they are stealing what already belonged to them and people like them in the first place; they are Robin Hoods of the modern era-stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but fortunately for them they are the only poor folks they know. And this is fun for a while which is more beneficial than not to “Hustlers” as the film runs a tight, hour and forty-five or so. It is only as the film enters its third act that not only is there a sense in terms of the screenplay that things had to be compounded and wrapped up in a swift manner, but there is also a repetitive nature to how this section of the film is ultimately executed leaving the plotting and eventual comeuppance of the characters to feel both sloppy and slightly unearned. There is no conscience about screwing these guys over for the majority of the film and there is an abrasiveness to this that is complimented by the playful soundtrack that not only features the aforementioned Jackson, but also a great Britney Spears drop, some Bob Seger and a little Fiona Apple just for good measure, but given these women are running the same scheme time and time again there needs to be more than needle drops to differentiate the various victims of said scheme. Scafaria, while not having seen her other work recently, is seemingly a filmmaker who is very good at capturing the essence of her subjects and their world if not necessarily connecting the logical dots necessary to make a comprehensive story. That might sound more damning that intended, but this is to say that both Ramona and Destiny have children that are featured prominently throughout the film and while both daughters might be too young to comprehend what their mothers do for a living or question where their father figures might be, Scafaria's script never even cares to touch on how Ramona or Destiny deal with the fact they'll eventually have to come to terms with their daughters knowing the truth about what they did and the lengths they went to in order to provide for them. There's even a section in the film where Destiny states that she's going back to school and is shown studying and doing homework on a laptop backstage, but we don't know what she's going to school for, what she's interested in or what her aspirations are. In the beginning of this review I wrote that there's no introduction to the character of Destiny, but more to a certain mindset with the major flaw of “Hustlers” being that it never gets around to truly introducing us to the characters, but instead keeps us at a safe enough distance that we understand what these women are about even if we don't really understand who they are.
“Hustlers” is a high-energy piece of filmmaking that largely doesn't slow down often enough to even allow for questions concerning the kind of class warfare story that it's telling at its core, but instead-much like most if not all of the men featured in the movie-“Hustlers” is also seduced by its own flash and dazzle. The plus side being that Scafaria, with her female gaze, shoots the strip club sequences in ways that-while still featuring some repulsive male degradations-maintain a decadence and luxuriousness that is conveyed as being sexy and "all in good fun"; this sexy sheen the film possesses is likely replaced by a more exploitative nature at your local strip joint, but here's to small wishes. This "gaze" allows for one to feel less "icky" for having walked into the movie at all, but the story having been spawned from a group of strippers and the inherent setting that comes along with this is only part of the glitz and glamour involved in the story that the movie adaptation can't help but become infatuated with and there's understandable enough reason for why Scafaria treats it this way; from the opening JLo routine through to the glorified set decorations that are Lizzo and Cardi B (the two barely have speaking parts and have only been recruited for their names) and onto the girls carrying out Ramona's scheme through to the rewards they all reap that sees them living these lives of opulence-the movie shifts from the viewer cheering them on to almost not feeling bad for the characters or at least as "OK" with their lack of any kind of conscience in taking advantage of the people they're taking advantage of-whether they deserve it or not. This again speaks to the kind of inability of Scafaria's screenplay to successfully collect all of her film's ideas and plot points and summarize them into a single, cohesive piece as the film establishes up front what it's about and how it wants to be about that (a la a riotous call about sticking it to the man courtesy of the most undervalued of societal ornaments) while eventually (and unintentionally) offering up optional perspectives through which to view the protagonists. If nothing else were to be altered in the film, the intended perception might have at least been maintained had Scafaria allowed Wu's performance as Destiny to become more than just a narrative and structural device. Yes, Lopez is the beacon every time she's on screen and her performance as this multi-faceted character who is the catalyst for everything that happens and that we can't exactly put our thumb on is largely what elevates the film as a whole, but despite all of that this is still Destiny's movie. And though Wu certainly has something of an arc, it's hard to accept that the hustle itself wouldn't feel more rewarding in its defiance if we came to know this woman beyond the archetype.