by Alan Yudman
Here is a pro tip for anyone who reads reviews before going to see a movie. Don’t.
Sometimes I find it difficult to follow my own advice. Such was the case with HUSTLERS. I heard the buzz, read a couple of reviews and was ready to see the best movie of my life. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But the buzz on this film was incredible. The movie, not so incredible. Yes, I feel like I was Hustled.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very enjoyable movie. But it is a flawed one. Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either a revenge movie with the dancers getting back at the Wall Street hustlers who swindled people during the 2008 crash or a psychological drama about how a vulnerable person can be manipulated by a psychopath. Here’s a spoiler… it’s both.
The film is based on a 2015 article by Jessica Pressler for The Cut, “The Hustlers at Scores”. It’s the true story of how these dancers ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges on clients’ credit cards after slipping each of them a mickey. Lopez’s Ramona is the leader of the crew and takes Constance Wu’s Destiny into her fur coat and under her wing. Ramona is the
Queen Bee of this hive. She is the best dancer, the most in demand by guys and she knows how to use her gifts to make money. She just takes it to the next level with her scheme to rip off the guys. Destiiny appears to be inexperienced and desperate to learn the tricks of the trade from Ramona. And it all works great. The girls are making money like crazy until they are finally caught and arrested.
The reviews have lauded Lopez’s performance. Mostly that’s deserved. She is tough and uncompromising. But she is also a bit of a manipulative psychopath. She wants to make money, to make the guys “pay” at all costs. She doesn’t see how they are becoming vulnerable. And when Destiny questions her leadership she tosses her aside. Wu’s character has an arc. Lopez’s has a purpose. Ramona is the real villain of this story. She takes advantage of Destiny’s vulnerability for her own gain. She hustles her. How Wu works through that is the heart of this story.
There are a lot of noteworthy performances. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart are great as members of the crew. Cardi B and Lizzo have fun, yet small parts as strippers in the club.
Lorene Scafaria does a fine job as both director and screenwriter. She really nailed the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. The women are portrayed as strong and powerful, not just nude playthings for the men. The scheme is fun and funny. You find yourself rooting for the crew as they target each guy and take them for all they can.
The psychological drama is disturbing as Destiny falls deeper into the web spun by Ramona. I actually enjoyed that part of the film more than the “hustle”. That is where Wu shines. She is vulnerable even when she is trying to project power and strength. Wu always looks to Lopez for approval until she is pushed aside for a newer model. Then she is desperate to figure out why and what happened. But Wu also sees what is happening because Lopez is hiring dicey characters it makes the crew vulnerable. It all comes crashing down when they are arrested in a sting that comes to fruition because of one of those dicey hires. And despite all that, Wu still seeks approval and the friendship of Lopez. It is a tough and vulnerable performance and Wu’s star continues to shine bright.
The theme of the hustle is threaded throughout the story. The dancers are hustling the guys. Ramona is hustling Destiny. And Destiny is hustling the journalist who is interviewing her (a very small but important role for Julia Stiles). Is it all a metaphor for America? Ramona as much says so in one scene. If it is, that is a pathetic commentary on society.