The post-2007 recession will continue to supply movies and TV dramas with endless examples of capitalist venality and the resulting suffering of the masses, but so far there’s been what seems like an even divide between comedy (The Big Short, etc.) and melodrama (99 Homes, etc.). Hustlers, which is based on a true story, is stuck somewhere in the middle in terms of entertainment value. Essentially a feature-long revenge fantasy against the moneyed assholes who caused the meltdown—not to mention moneyed horndogs—the story’s real-life particulars have obviously been ginned up, and for once it’s a good thing.
Our nominal hero is Dorothy (Constance Wu), who, at the beginning of the film, is the new girl at an upscale Manhattan strip club circa 2006. It’s the height of the go-go securities surge propelled by improper trading policies, but the movie isn’t concerned with the how or the why of that disaster. Dorothy is still learning the ropes, which mainly entails getting customers to pay for lap dances. Predictably, she doesn’t really know what to do, but soon falls under the tutelage of the club’s veteran pole dance queen, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and Dorothy is liberated not only of her squeamishness but of any misgivings she’s had about entering this line of work in the first place.
Director Lorene Scafaria revs up the sexiness in line with the general female empowerment theme without doing damage to either, though it’s not entirely clear why she structured her story as multiple flashbacks within flashbacks, a strategy that also calls for whiplash changes in POV. Ramona seems like the obvious focus here, and not just because Lopez has a headlock on the character, but Dorothy is conveyed as the member of this coterie with the most sympathetic background, having grown up in lower middle class Queens with her debt-ridden Chinese grandmother. But just as Dorothy starts making really good money, the bottom falls out of the economy, taking most of these Wall Street high rollers with it. After losing her job and trying to fit into a series of 9-to-5 gigs over the next several years, she’s approached by Ramona to get back into the game, only this time the strippers will do things their way, picking up marks, drugging them, and then taking them to clubs where they do runs on their credit cards. Though strictly illegal, the marks don’t say anything because, well, they’re marks, and they don’t want others, including their wives, to know what they’re up to after hours.
Scafaria keeps the laughs and the thrills coming in equal amounts, though there’s too many cash-and-champagne montages of the quartet of hustlers (a true model of diversity—Asian, Latino, Black, White) savoring their scams. Naturally, it will all come crashing down around them, and while there’s nothing surprising about these women’s fall Scafaria handles it with the kind of skill and attention to detail you’d see in a taut Sidney Lumet production. And while I see the narrative purpose of the framing device with the investigative reporter (Julia Stiles), every time it’s accessed the movie loses a bit in terms of momentum and tension. At times, Hustlers comes across as a refreshingly original take on several topics that the movies have translated into cliches over the years, but some old habits are really difficult to shake.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Hustlers home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 STX Financing LLC