“HUSTLERS”: Ladies’ night

My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Sept. 13) – 109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Published September 12, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

“Hustlers” arrives on a wave of fest-generated hype: It’s one of the year’s best!!!  Jennifer Lopez is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination!!!

Uh, sorry, but I don’t see it.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is ambitious, certainly, telling the fact-based story of a group of exotic dancers who in the decade after the big market meltdown reacted to economic challenges by luring, drugging and ripping off wealthy men, sometimes for as much as $50,000 a pop.

It offers a charismatic and glamorous turn from Lopez, who is compellingly watchable as the nurturing (until she isn’t) pole dancer/housemother of this group of female marauders. Even more of a revelation is Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as the new girl at the strip joint through whose eyes we witness it all.

But despite its welcome depiction of mutually supportive sisterhood, Scafaria’s film becomes bogged down in sticky moral entanglements.  Even more problematic, this is an emotionally chilly yarn exhibiting little warmth or open compassion for its characters.

Given that the few men depicted here are unsalvageable swine and the ladies are equally predatory…who are we supposed to root for?

The story begins in 2006 with Destiny (Wu) struggling to get into the swing of things at a noisy, dark, raunchy NYC exotic dancing club.  She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), who gives her an impressive tutorial of pole moves (I particularly liked “the table”) and coaches her in the art of squeezing money out of arrogant Wall Street sphincters.

But in the wake of the big crash the high rollers aren’t rolling much.  Ramona cooks up a special drug cocktail — it makes its victims gleefully happy while erasing their short-term memories — and with Destiny and a small crew of out-of-work dancers targets and rips off moneyed fat cats.

None of this happens overnight.  The yarn unfolds over 10 years, during which time Destiny weds, has a daughter and sees her marriage go belly up.  Yet these elements are given mere seconds of screen time (do we even learn her husband’s name?). Thankfully her relationship with her loving grandma (Wai Ching Ho) gives the film a smidgen of heart.

But with the exception of Lopez and Wu’s characters, most of these women (portrayed by the likes of Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, Madeline Brewer and Mette Towley) are ciphers, one-of-the-girls place fillers.

Among the film’s producers is Adam McKay, whose 2018 “Vice” (about Dick Cheney) was a model of political and social satire.  But “Hustlers” isn’t particularly funny (besides, boorish men are awfully easy targets).

Further complicating things is a twisted narrative. Scafaria’s screenplay begins  with Destiny being interviewed by a journalist (Julia Stiles) doing a story on the girl gang’s exploits, and flips between the past and the present. It relies heavily on Wu’s voiceover narration…you’ve always got to wonder about a filmmaker who tells us instead of showing us.

Despite its lurid premise, “Hustlers” is about as erotic as a speculum.  Despite employing their sexuality as a lure, these women seem to have no interest in the act itself. Of course, given their daily exposure to the worst of male proclivities, who can blame them?

This attitude extends even to the costuming; most of the players are presented in various states of provocative undress, but there’s very little actual nudity.

This is only Scafaria’s second feature (the first was the Susan Sarandon/Rose Byrne comedy “The Meddler”) and one must admire the the economic/social scope to which she aspires. But while “Hustlers” captures the sensory texture of its often tawdry milieu, on the dramatic end of things her grasp is loose and uncertain.

Maybe there’s a big statement here…but I missed it.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.