15 April 2024

Film Review – Hustlers (2019)

Female ensemble movies, especially of the crime variety, have become the sub-genre du jour of late. Not that they weren’t around before, but recent changes have persuaded Hollywood to give us more. There’s been the grittiness of Widows (a re-working of a 1983 TV series – we rest our case), the gloss of Ocean’s 8 and the forthcoming The Kitchen. This week it’s the turn of Hustlers, based on a true story that first came to light in the New York magazine, went viral and sparked the imagination of writer/director Lorene Scafaria.

The story, which emerged back in 2015, evolved over a number of years. Out of desperation to make ends meet, Dorothy (Constance Wu) starts pole dancing and, while she’s no natural, lessons from the more experienced Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) help no end and the two become close friends. The money rolls in – correction, it’s thrown onto the stage, tucked into their G-strings, you get the picture – but it all comes crashing to a halt when Wall Street hits the skids, many of their clients disappear and the bar where they work goes downhill. They have to keep the money coming in, so Ramona comes up with a plan that allows them to take advantage of the bankers who are still working. After all, nobody’s going to feel sorry for the people who caused the financial collapse losing their money to a group of hustlers, are they?

So the Wall Street hustlers meet the ones of the title – and are well and truly hustled themselves. Lopez’s Ramona explains it as a kind of vengeance on the bankers who sold the country down the financial river, but her words ring hollow, sounding little more than an excuse. In truth, what they do has the callousness of something “best eaten cold”, which makes for a morally ambiguous – and ambivalent – film, one that leaves feelings of discomfort mingled with a certain admiration. And while Ramona is impervious to any feelings of shame or remorse, Dorothy feels otherwise and that’s where the scam starts to come undone. But not until it’s escalated to the point of being outrageous.

The film’s origins as a magazine article put in a late appearance and don’t really need to be there. Out of nowhere, the action cuts to Dorothy being interviewed by journalist Jessica Presler (Julia Stiles) and from then on, their interviews, and Jessica’s meeting with Ramona, become the story’s narrator, a conventional approach that almost hints at some doubts in Scafaria’s mind about the film. Given the clarity with which she’s drawn the characters, and the performances that she gets from her cast, she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. There’s plenty of energy on show – the scenes in the dressing rooms at the club are noisy, natural and funny – although the sequences with clients in what’s referred to as “the champagne room” revolve around a sterile sexuality. All promise but no delivery, as it were.

For a film with distinct qualities and where the women work well together on the screen, it never for one moment gets anywhere near capturing your total sympathy. Support The Girls it most certainly is not – it’s miles away from that – but it is a film that, because of its ambiguity, will stick with you for some time afterwards as you mull it over and try to decide exactly how you feel. Just take your time ….

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Crime, Thriller, Drama | Cert:15 | UK, 13 September (2019) | STX International | Dir. Lorene Scafaria | Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B.

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