Hustlers (2019)

“We can’t dance forever.”

With exceptions few and far between, the American Dream’s heyday hopes of a life lived in suburbia with a white-picket fence have radically changed this side of the millennium. People don’t just want security; they want excess. Capitalism could be to blame, as could the lethal mix of reality television and the rise of social media, and for close to two hours Hustlers explores these themes as best as it can, all while telling an absorbing love story between two friends and the seeds of greed which eventually overtook their own little slice of Shangri-La. It’s one of the better morality plays I’ve seen this year.

From back of the club to the front floor, Hustlers opens on Destiny (Constance Wu) in one impressive long shot, a young woman known as Dorothy by the grandmother she struggles to support and as the new girl in the dressing room. She entertains all types of men in the New York club where she’s employed: the eager, the old, the powder nosed, and the many unknowing racists who choose to call her over by shouting “Lucy Lui.” Destiny doesn’t manifest much money early on, failing to capitalize on the rapacious eyes and hands of the many tiers of Wall Street men in the crowd. Then a hush fills the room, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” crawls through the speakers, and the veteran performer Ramona (a mesmeric Jennifer Lopez) commands center stage with a scintillating, effortlessly sexy yet expertly calculated routine. She ends up swimming in a sea of bills, Destiny looks on with great curiosity, and Ramona passes her by while saying, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Destiny’s longing gaze is all the answer you need to such an obviously rhetorical question.

For how inorganic and surface level the love affair between Destiny and Ramona initially feels compared to the camaraderie during the rest of the picture – which is inherently linked to the heightened materialism – Hustlers is really only lacking in two other components. The relationships in the film would have benefited from richer background characters who prioritized showing attributes instead of telling us them. Likewise, I felt that the many time jumps used late in the narrative sorely needed more balance, especially as the movie came to its only logical and ultimately predictable conclusion. Does Hustlers have its fair share of faults? That’s my subjective belief. Does it take major risks? That’s an objective yes.

Adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article (intermittently played here by an attentive Julia Stiles), Hustlers fearlessly challenges the aptitude of those in the audience. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria makes one bold decision after another, resulting in a more serious mentorship than was shown in Showgirls and still packing a less pungent flavor packed by the thinly sliced garlic in Goodfellas. The film toes a delicate line, and thankfully doesn’t bleed over into the cheerleader territory of Coyote Ugly. You take this one seriously because that’s part of the often playful tone it operates on from start to finish. And yet I couldn’t help but find myself needing more descriptive details to bring the ladies’ lawless, unthinkable acts to life. Something is missing, but there’s enough here that it can be easily overlooked.

As I mentioned earlier, Scafaria swings for the fences in a few scenes, and you can almost feel the success of her brave choices as each moment comes to a close. Sound cuts out entirely with purpose. Secretly taped recordings give us privy. And one of the best soundtracks in recent memory not only uses the melodies of the songs to coast upon with mass appeal, but it treats the lyrics of the tracks as co-conspirators telling this joint true story. Janet Jackson’s “Control” essentially lays out the framework of the entire picture. Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” incites avarice. Lorde’s “Royals” illustrates the demise of a purely American fairy tale fueled by hope and haste. And interspersed throughout are Chopin’s take on the Études – classical movements meant to help an artist properly learn a technique – used here to teach characters pole moves and to ground the audience in a new dance. So while the interview format gives way to a lethargic pacing in the second half, Hustlers is still a film about makeshift family, about honing a physical craft, and about mastering the psychology of the sexes. Women unsurprisingly have the upper hand.

“This whole country is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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