Muddy morality of 'Hustlers' elevating in accomplished filmmaking

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 9/14/19

 

It speaks to the quality of “Hustlers” that the 50-year-old Jennifer Lopez’s show-stopping turn as a nightclub pole dancer isn’t the most surprisingly fab part of …

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Muddy morality of 'Hustlers' elevating in accomplished filmmaking

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It speaks to the quality of “Hustlers” that the 50-year-old Jennifer Lopez’s show-stopping turn as a nightclub pole dancer isn’t the most surprisingly fab part of the film. J-Lo’s seductive acrobatics cap an opening sequence build around a Scorsese-esque tracking shot — set to the not-coincidental strains of Janet Jackson’s “Control” — that migrates from the backstage to the mainstage of a New York City strip club in its mid-aughts heyday. Wall Street fat cats and the occasional celebrity were literally throwing cash around, the seed money for a symbiotic industry of allure. And when the party stopped, everyone had to find another hustle. As the film’s unsubtle metaphor hammers home, we’re all dancing for dollars, whether literally or figuratively.

The film is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 “New Yorker” magazine exposé about the real-life dancers at New York’s Score Nightclub. The framing device are flashforwards to a reporter named Elizabeth (played by Julia Stiles) and her 2014 background interview with Dorothy (Constance Wu, “Crazy Rich Asians”), who entered the nightclub world in 2007 as a wide-eyed girl needing to support her ailing grandmother. Dorothy, who goes by the on-the-nose stage name Destiny, doesn’t exude sexy confidence. That’s when she spies Ramona (Lopez), the alpha of the troupe, who takes Dorothy under her wing and forms a lucrative private dance duo for the VIP clients.

Ramona’s magnanimity seems strange in this competitive market, and it almost feels like the story is heading down an “All About Eve” or (ugh) “Showgirls” road. But Dorothy and Ramona’s rapport feels real, along with their relationship with the rest of the girls (including turns by Cardi B and Lizzo). Then comes the Great Crash of 2008, when Wall Street firms went under, rich guys went broke, and dependent industries like exotic clubs shuddered. Before long, Dorothy is looking for a 9-to-5 without experience and raising a baby girl.

A chance encounter with Ramona in 2011 introduces Dorothy to the fulcrum of Elizabeth’s eventual article. Dorothy joins a group of strippers who trawl bars, looking for rich targets to ply full of booze, then pilfer their credit cards and drain their bank accounts. When alcohol becomes too inefficient and expensive, the girls cook up a MDMA-ketamine concoction to use on their marks, knocking the men out to make them easier prey. It’s a seemingly foolproof plan: if the men complain, they’re told they had a great night they don’t remember, and they’re reminded that they really don’t want their wives to know why they lost all that money.

“Hustlers” muddy morality is grounded in the presumption that these skeevy men had it coming in our patriarchal culture, and the working class are justified in fighting for their piece of the one percent by any means necessary. It’s a thorny premise even the film acknowledges when Dorothy conjures sympathy for one victim, much to Ramona’s anger. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay introduces side plots — Ramona and Destiny’s relationship with their respective daughters; Mercedes Ruehl as the stripclub’s matron — that aren’t sufficiently fleshed out. The two other members of Ramona’s troupe, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), cave out their charm despite characters defined by singular characteristics: vomiting in moments of tension and an imprisoned boyfriend, respectively.

Whereas Scafaria’s script is sometimes slipshod, her pacing, framing, and visual aplomb are spectacular. Aided by cinematographer Todd Banhazl, Scafaria crafts a feminine “Goodfellas” that follows the heady, vibrant rise and frantic fall of Dorothy and Ramona’s friendship in crime. The camera positioning is acute and the movements are fluid. The setting springs to life under the glow of nocturnal neon, then belied by a natural daylight that appears harsh and ugly by comparison.

Lopez owns the screen, but Wu is the most compelling presence, especially during her byplay with Elizabeth, when Dorothy conveys a simultaneous emotional melange of pride, indignation, and sorrow. Scafaria takes a familiar story, puts it a very unique setting, and then elevates it with accomplished filmmaking, all through a female perspective that permits the women at issue to appear glamourous but not exploited. It’s a tricky dance, but “Hustlers” manages to pull it off.

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