“Hustlers,” adapted from the Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article Hustlers at Scores by director Lorene Scafaria and starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, opens on one of the scariest days in a year, a Friday the 13th. Is it because it’s a horror film? No. Is it because it takes what should be a story about modern day morality and the cost of dehumanizing others but instead is so alarmingly mismanaged that it’s frightfully irresponsible? Well, sadly yes.
By treating probable immorality like absolute heroism, tossing narrative conflict out the window, giving us no lens through which to experience the story, and featuring very little stripping in a movie contextualized by a strip club, STXfilms presents a flick it thinks fulfills its potential, but is instead alienating to its viewer.
A yarn about a meteoric rise from just-getting-by to diamonds-in-the-sky, “Hustlers” follows strippers Destiny (Wu) and Ramona (Lopez) and their pack of desperate dancers as they drug men and run credit card scams to prop themselves up during the financial meltdown of 2008.
It’s a movie that wants to be social, atmospheric and explore the tawdry things we’d do for money and power. Think: “ The Wolfettes of (the strip club behind) Wall Street.”
Though the movie does a wonderful job not disparaging the real-life women these actors portray or the exotic dance industry, it does not do enough to create empathy for them or to seduce the audience into an emotional journey.
Which is paramount if we are to stay engaged and in the trust of the narrative.
This cause-driven story foregoes substance in the interest of commercially-branded feminism. Girl Power never meets the goal of dismantling sexism, but rather simply removes man at the apex of authority and replaces him with herself.
This movie is developed, produced and delivered post “hashtag me too”. In this era, drugging someone and taking advantage of her is criminal. One where her assailant doesn’t get a day in court before losing his job, his endorsements, his reputation.
Let’s assume that everyone generally agrees that a click of New York City strippers banding together to scam Wall Street dudes out of hundreds-of-thousands of dollars is questionable behavior, but meh, a way of the world. Doing it by drugging them, dragging them, literally dragging them to the club, and storming their account limits without consent or knowledge is both legally and morally wrong.
True feminism holds equal alarm when he is the victim of such abhorrent abuse. Yet, “Hustlers” presents this situation as humorous and glamorous, as if the men deserve it. Women who plunder Wall Street douche bags are powerful, punishers of heterosexual men who exploit women by paying for pleasure.
The dangerous and offensive nature of this story approach is mingled with point-of-view and conflict scarcities. Destiny might be our lens. It could be journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). Maybe it’s Ramona. One of the other dancers. Maybe a fly on the wall. We don’t know.
High school dropout Destiny is the adventurer in this tale, but has really nothing to do. She walks into a strip club with the burden of caring for her grandmother and the first night discovers that her monetary takeaway is far less than ideal. Everyone gets their fingers in.
She watches Ramona dance and falls into a hypnotic admiration. And with J. Lo in the role, Ramona ‘got all that body’. After too many years of missing Jenny from the Block, we are gloriously blessed with that unveiled flawless booty. Though the routine is very Demi Moore in Striptease, the way Destiny watches is exactly how we feel.
They hook up, become fast friends. Destiny gets a boyfriend, has a baby, and at the side of her ride-or-die Ramona, nurses her penchant for high-priced luxuries. The crisis hits, the strip club slows, they work off-the-rack, bargain bin retail jobs and they just. can’t. take it.
All this serves as justification, but not cause-and-effect.
There is no antagonist to keep them from their goal. None.
We are to assume that these women act as they do because they are single mothers, they have elder family to care for, an ax to grind, and tastes to indulge. We are to take our pain at the 2008 horror and apply it to the story for them.
There is one scene that epitomizes this lapse in narrative execution. Destiny is sitting with Elizabeth who asks her a direct question about her relationship with Ramona. Destiny is abrupt when she shuts down the interview and marches Elizabeth to the door. However, the very next scene is the journalist receiving a phone call from Destiny who divulges the answer to Elizabeth’s seemingly affronting question.
No reason, no cause for the change of heart is given. It’s an unearned reversal. It is analogous to the rise and fall pattern of the entire film. There is none. There is no true tension, no real conflict because there is no force working against these women as they strive to make money off of the bastards who made money off of us.
What a cathartic parable “Hustlers” could have been: To watch these jerkoffs who used the financial industry to violate everyday Americans, destroy lives, obliterate families for a private jet, get their just desserts, by savvy business women who use the same wallet swiping tactics!
Without an antagonist to allow us to root for these women, to journey with them, they come off as money-grubbing harlots and the true potential of the story is never reached. Like the PG dance numbers that have no bounce, “Hustlers” lacks excitement, bite. It wastes its soul and cultural responsibility in the name of “girl power”.
Ain’t enough bounce in this baby.