The bump-and-grind of Hustlers was not enough to lure audiences into what I'm told is a tale of female empowerment. Despite being inspired by a true story, Hustlers is as sleazy as a real strip club, if at least as honest as one.
Weaving our main story with that of an interview to recount this story, we have young Destiny (Constance Wu) starting out as a novice stripper at Moves, a major strip club that caters to a Wall Street clientele. While business is good, Destiny struggles to find her footing so to speak.
In a scene reminiscent of the starstruck Roxie Hart looking upon Velma Kelly in Chicago, Destiny finds her destiny when she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a stripper who commands the stage and the men with equal power. Ramona, in her massive chinchilla coat, quickly takes Destiny under her wing, showing her the ropes and poles.
Soon they become fast friends among a group of strippers who share in the good economic times, where even Usher comes to enjoy the ladies. Then comes the Great Recession: business dries up, the girls struggle in the economic downturn and Destiny ends up leaving, losing contact with Ramona.
A few years later, Destiny's hand is forced back into Moves, but it's a changed world where no one is enthusiastic but it's the only way to care for her young daughter and aging grandmother. A chance encounter with Ramona inspires a new plan: robbing former and new clients by drugging them and racking up their credit cards. Roping in former Moves dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the plan works with everyone making money.
Ramona, however, in the way of life, starts getting greedy. She opts to freelance versus using Moves as a base, then starts hiring unreliable girls to be the lures over Destiny's objections. Eventually the conspiracy unravels, dragging them all down. As recounted to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), we see their spectacular fall though in the end their sentences were relatively light.
As much as I tried I could not get past the many sordid elements in Hustlers, but that was not the primary reason I was not won over by it. Rather, it had to do with the idea that the women were in any way justified in their schemes. They were drugging men into handing over their money, men with diminished capacity and thus in no position to give consent to anything. Moreover, try as the film might, I could not find the various marks to be horrible people.
In fact, the mark who blew the whistle on the whole enterprise was presented as essentially a decent man, one who lost his job and was left with no way to both pay his mortgage or care for his autistic son as a result of the fatal females' machinations. How could I see Hustlers as a 'female empowerment' film when the females were using their bodies to commit crimes, and worse, crimes against some men who were not the sleazy figures they had dealt with in the past?
Another issue with Hustlers, one that I don't think is talked about more, is the tone. At times, Hustlers almost plays like a comedy, at least judging from the audience reaction that had them laughing even in the stripping numbers. Of particular note is when Mercedes calls Destiny in a panic when one of her marks appears to be dead.
Despite writer/director Lorena Scarafia's best efforts, the entire scene played like almost a Hangover-like spoof. Same for when they are cooking up the exact concoction that will serve as their version of 'roofies'.
In retrospect I think some of the performances were good. While I'm puzzled at any potential Oscar talk for J-Lo, her Ramona is a more complicated character than I first thought. She has a dark view of the world, one where her actions are if not 'moral' at least 'right'. In her way of thinking, the men who throw money at her stole that money from innocent people, so she has the right to steal it back. By the time we get to Destiny's conflicted view on the matter, Ramona has all but lost her patience with her BFF.
As a side note, if there were any actual Oscar consideration for Lopez, it should be for Lead versus Supporting given how large and dominant her role is. It's nice to see how at age 50 Lopez still has an incredible body, but is this really the role to put her among acting greats?
Wu also gives a strong performance as Destiny, who is not really cut out for either stripping or robbery. Wai Ching Ho as Destiny's grandmother had some good moments, particularly at the Christmas party Ramona organized for her girls, though as others near me observed, her obliviousness as to how Destiny made the bushels of money makes one wonder whether she was willfully naive or just didn't care.
I wasn't convinced with Stiles' reporter, who seemed almost forced into the story. There seemed a brittle, defensive manner to her performance which I would think was at odds with her character.
Hustlers is beautifully shot film, but I found it a bit predictable in where it went. I also found the subject rather distasteful and sleazy. It is like a high-end strip club: rather cold despite the efforts at class and sophistication.