If “The Big Short” and “War Dogs” had a child, I think this would be a lot what it would look like.
“Hustlers” is based on the true story of a group of New York City strippers who, following the financial crisis of 2008, begin to drug and rob from their rich clients. Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles and Lili Reinhart star as Lorene Scafaria writes and directs.
Every since “Wolf of Wall Street” came out in 2013, there have been several attempts to try and copy its formula and energy. One of the biggest offenders of this is “War Dogs,” a 2016 film by Todd Phillips (and note: this review is written in a pre-“Joker” world). That film had an entertaining performance from Jonah Hill, a sympathetic main character in Miles Teller, a nice color-tinted filter and finally a decent soundtrack. However it also was thin on story, refusing to really give us any conflict and moral ponderings before our main characters were finally arrested for their actions. And much like that based on a true story tale, “Hustlers” has many of the same positives along with the flaws.
The moment this film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the talk has been about nothing but Jennifer Lopez; and she is quite good in this. As the Queen of the rom-com, her career has never been one of many meaty roles (only really “Selena” and “Out of Sight” come to mind), but there is still definitely weight in saying this is the best performance of her career. There is something devastating behind the eyes of this aging stripper (even if J-Lo is still *killing it* at 50), and Lopez does a good job conveying one emotion while clearly hiding back another.
Constance Wu, most known for “Crazy Rich Asians” but has always been number one in my heart for “Fresh Off the Boat,” is somewhat of our de-facto protagonist (even getting top billing over Lopez) and for the most part I think she does a solid job carrying the film. Towards the start of things she is somewhat confident but timid, and we witness her arc rise and fall throughout, and Wu is able to sell all those points.
I usually will single-out camera work as far as below-the-line stuff goes, but here I am going to praise the film’s use of sound and music. Not only does it feature hit songs from the year the scene is set (between 2008-2013) to immerse us, but the inclusion of several other tricks really elevated scenes. One features opera-like instrumental melodies over a pole-dance scene (because what the strippers do is like art to them) and other had the sound entirely cut out of the film for dramatic effect.
The film almost comes off like it wants to be a Scorsese chick-flick, with the central plot focusing on crime and the main characters being likable working Joe(ttes). However unlike a Scorsese film (whether it is “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street”) you can tell exactly where the plot is going to end up. Even not taking into account the fact this is based on a true story and had a magazine article written about it, there is no growing sense of tension or paranoia like in other films like this; things just play out until suddenly a climax is thrust upon us. And the scenes that do seem like they will feature a twist or an emotional point are glossed over far too quickly.
Things just get repetitive, especially once the women begin to pick out the men they are going to con, and I was waiting for a conflict or soul-searching moment that never came. On more than one occasion Lopez says what they’re doing is ok because “these Wall Street guys stole from everybody” and “if we didn’t rob them someone else would.” And like, that may hold up in something like “Wolf of Wall Street” where our main characters are deplorable and greedy, but here we are shown central protagonists who are presented as loving mothers and (apparently) kind-hearted middle-class folk, so to try and justify their actions is a harder sell. And since we’re clearly not going to root for the sleazy Wall Street guys, there is no one left to pull for in the film.
“Hustlers” has a lot going for it, and I guess I can see why some people would love it, but I just left wanting more. The closing moments are arguably the best of the entire film, but again, it is not fleshed (no stripper pun intended) out and makes you wish Scafaria had ran a little bit with it. Lopez is fun to watch (I don’t know about all this Oscar chatter but she’s good) and there are several interesting or funny moments, but overall, much like an actual strip club, this is a pretty-looking package that is ultimately hollow inside.
Critic’s Rating: 5/10