Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Hustlers: Review

It makes sense that Adam McKay is a co-producer of Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria’s film could almost be a vignette from The Big Short, which had a scene where a stripper tells Steve Carell’s character about how she’s been flipping houses. McKay’s film was about a few men on Wall Street who predicted, and benefitted from, the 2008 US financial crisis. Hustlers is about a group of women, dancers in a New York strip club, whose lives are derailed by the same crisis, and who take to crime to support themselves.

When Dorothy (Constance Wu) takes up stripping, she doesn’t get anywhere initially: she’s not an especially good dancer and there’s a lot of competition to take money off the Wall Street types who come in. Her luck changes when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who takes her under her wing, shows her how to work the pole and, more importantly, how to identify big spenders and keep them happy. Just as their lives are looking up, the economy tanks in 2008. Suddenly, most of the rich patrons are in jail or out of jobs, and Dorothy’s boyfriend has left her with their baby.

When they run into each other again, Ramona lets Dorothy in on a scheme she’s running. She and her friends find a suitably flush mark, slip a mixture of ketamine and MDMA into his drink, rendering him almost comatose, then run up huge bills at the strip club, of which they get a cut. Dorothy, despite her reservations, joins the gang.

Hustlers, which is based on a 2015 New York magazine article, has the same rude energy The Big Short did, but there’s one difference. Scafaria’s film has an unwavering emotional throughline: Ramona and Dorothy’s friendship, genuinely touching, even when it frays. The scene where they talk for the first time – right after Ramona burns up the floor dancing to Fiona Apple’s "Criminal" – is perfect in its simplicity. An awestruck Dorothy bums a light off Ramona, who’s sprawled on the roof. Noticing the younger woman doesn’t have a coat, Ramona calls her closer, and wraps her in the magnificent fur she’s wearing. It’s an apt gesture – the film is unsentimental, but Ramona has an enveloping warmth.

Ramona’s plan is so direct and uncomplicated it allows Hustlers to sidestep the winking intricacies of the Danny and Debbie Ocean films, or even those of Logan Lucky, whose characters belong to a similar economic milieu. The viewer’s attention is focused time and again on characters and performers: Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer and Madeline Brewer as Ramona’s partners-in-crime, crowd-pleasing cameos from Cardi B and Lizzo (with flute), and the late-2000s setting driven home by the presence of Usher (as himself) and Julia Stiles (as a journalist).

Wu’s low-wattage warmth creates the space for Lopez’s barnstorming performance. Ramona is a complex creation – driven, impetuous, maternal, materialistic – and Lopez plays all the shades simultaneously. It’s an exhilarating lead turn in a breakneck movie, which – despite its crazy premise – is filled with more rage and emotion than you’d imagine. This is an unremittingly tough world, filled with abusers of various stripes, neglectful parents, callous employers, rapacious businessmen. All that’s offered in return is a bit of hopeful advice: lean on a friend.

This review appeared in Mint.

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