Movie Review: Hustlers (2019)
You know what this movie’s about? Sure, at bottom it’s about who gets screwed. It’s about the underdogs momentarily screwing over the overdogs—the Wall Street boys—who screwed us all during the global financial meltdown and beyond. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” Ramon says. “You‘ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” She’s trying to make them do the dance for a change. At least that’s how the movie is being sold to critics and viewers.
But what does it hinge on?
This: Who’s J-Lo’s favorite? That’s it.
At first, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) inexplicably takes Destiny (Constance Wu), a nice Chinese-American girl, under her wing, and it leads to success and friendship; then, just as inexplicably, she takes Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a red-headed junkie, under her wing, and it leads to betrayal and incarceration. Both actions seem preordained but both are inexplicable. We don’t know why she cares about the lost child Destiny, or why she risks everything on a volatile piece of work like Dawn.
Most of the characters in the movie aren’t worth a damn, but that’s not the problem. Tons of great movies have been made about people who aren’t worth a damn. The problem is that they’re not particularly interesting, either. What do they do once they scam the bad guys? They go shopping. They‘re all about as deep as a puddle.
Let’s go shopping
The movie is based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves,” and it’s framed with Destiny, in 2014, being interviewed by a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles).
Back in 2006/7, Destiny was eking out a living at a strip club named Moves; then she went under Ramona’s wing, who showed her all the right moves. Destiny became a pole dancer, and the money came rolling in. The high point, she says, is when Usher came in one night and partied with the girls. (Usher is played by Usher.)
Then the global financial meltdown hit and the party ended.
Did Destiny get married or just have a kid with a lousy boyfriend? Either way, she shows him the door. But now she’s caring for a daughter and a grandmother, so she goes back to Moves—but it’s different. Worse. Sex acts are common. Then she runs into Ramona again.
By now, Ramona and two other women, Mercedes and Annabelle (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart), go after rich men in bars, get their credit card numbers, then run up that bill. Sometimes the men are drugged, but what are they gonna say, Ramon asks rhetorically: “I spent $5,000 at a strip club—send help”?
Not sure why this scheme falls apart, to be honest. Other girls at Moves steal Ramona’s idea, so she moves the scam elsewhere—to hotels and their own homes. Do Mercedes and Annabelle fall away? The main point is that Ramona, normally so clear-eyed, can’t see what bad news Dawn is. Then there’s the shopping. Since they‘re buying high-end junk, nothing is saved for the rainy day that inevitably comes. It’s also boring. It’s the blank stealing from the blank.
You know who's more interesting? Rosie (aka Destiny) in Pressler’s article:
In the beginning, after work, Rosie would pick fights with her boyfriend, accusing him of cheating. “It fucked me up in the head a little,” she said of the window her job gave her into the male psyche. “The girls develop a terrible contempt,” one former Scores manager told me. “They stop believing men are real. They think: They are there for me to manipulate and take money from.”
And when it came to that, they all preferred the assholes. There’s something extra-satisfying about persuading a man who thinks you’re trash to spend his time and money on you. Preferably so much that in the end, they hate themselves. It’s like, Who doesn’t have any self-respect now, motherfucker?
At least they were worthy opponents. Not like the sad-sack losers who came in just to talk. “Like,” Rosie said, “I want you to look at me like I’m not one of those scumbag perverts.” Those guys had their uses, since you could string them along forever and extract payments for “rent” or “school.” But their weakness was pathetic. “I had so many damsel-in-distress stories,” Rosie said with a sigh. “Don’t tell me you love me. That means I know I can milk you for everything, and then some.”
We needed that sad-sack loser in here. Something. But then I guess the women would seem less heroic.
From the trailer, and the talk, I thought we’d get more on the global financial meltdown, but that’s the part that’s skipped over. That's just another blank here.
J-Lo is fine, but an Oscar nom? Ehh. Somehow “Hustlers” got 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler”), and it feels like some critics are not only pulling for women directors to succeed but pushing it a bit, too. This one isn’t exploitative, it’s not even sexy, but it's not particularly smart, either. It's often just as shallow as the culture it purports to expose.