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Non-Review Review: Hustlers

Hustlers wears its influences on its sleeve, which no small accomplishment for a movie about a bunch of criminal strippers.

Hustlers is adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, covering a post-recession swindle orchestrated by a group of enterprising strippers. The film is a tale of greed and commercialism, of opulence and corruption. The premise practically writes itself. Hustler is a story that is just lurid enough and just timely enough and just charged enough that it all comes together perfectly. The film’s narrative exists at an intersection of money and sex and drugs, but is anchored in a broader cultural and social context that uses this seemingly trashy set-up to say something seemingly profound about the American condition.

Given the premise and themes, it is no surprise that Hustlers should take so many of its cues from the films of Martin Scorsese. Joker has dominated a lot of the autumnal discussion about Scorsese’s influence on contemporary cinema with its obvious debts to films like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, but Hustlers is just as transparent in the debts that it owes to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s influence is felt on every inch of the film, from the film-making to the narrative structure to the awkward articulation of the central theme in the closing scene. It is both a strength and a weakness for Hustlers.

While Hustlers occasionally feels a little too indebted to the work of Scorsese to stand on its own two feet, the film largely works. Part of this is down to the skill and playfulness with which director Lorene Scafaria acknowledges her influence. Part of this is down to the film’s engaging charm and sense of humour, belying a compelling moral sophistication befitting the films that it is so obviously evoking. A lot of it comes down to the strong casting, including a compelling central dynamic and a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez.

To her credit, Scafaria wears her influences on her sleeve. There are extended periods of time when Hustlers looks and feels like some weird lost Martin Scorsese stripper film. This is obvious even in the way in which the story is structured. Most of the first act of Hustlers has passed before the film reveals that it has a narrator and a framing device, with one of the participants in the scheme narrating her story back to a fictionalised version of Pressler – named Jessica and played by Julia Stiles in this adaptation.

This framing device cleverly and immediately jolts the audience out of the story of decadence and sleaze, juxtaposing Dorothy’s time as an exotic dancer in a trashy New York club with her present reality as a middle-class mom living in a sterile (and luxurious) suburban home. The reveal is executed with a great deal of craft and care, cleverly pulling the rug out from under the viewer. Over the remainder of the film, Hustlers allows Dorothy to occasionally pause the action to correct the narrative or offer justification. Dorothy is making her case to Jessica and her tape recorder, but also directly to the audience.

Hustlers indulges in the sort of sly, self-aware storytelling that Scorsese popularised in American cinema, using conventional framing devices like narration to blur the boundaries between the audience and the action, between truth and self-serving fiction. Hustlers doesn’t get quite as postmodern and subversive as something like I, Tonya, but it remains cheeky and sly throughout its runtime. At one point during the interview, Dorothy stops Jessica’s tape recorder, cutting the sound on the film entirely. At another point, a supporting character’s surname is repeatedly bleeped, to protect his identity.

It isn’t just the narrative structure that owes a debt to Scorsese. Scafaria recognises that the film owes an obvious debt to the director, and leans into that. Hustlers borrows various visual and narrative cues from Scorsese. This is most obvious during Dorothy’s first trip to the stage at the strip club, which is shot in a long continuous take as she moves through the physical space, evoking one of the most memorable sequences in Goodfellas. Similarly, the film constantly jumps back and forth through time, often to create a sense of dramatic irony. It also skilfully manipulates and plays with the audience’s sympathies.

There are moments when this all seems too much, when the rhythms of Hustlers hew too close to “Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street… but with strippers.” To be fair, the story almost demands this approach. The story that inspired the film is populated with many of the same beats and archetypes that audiences associate with those sorts of characters; the criminals who turn on one another as the net tightens around them, the solemn reminder that there are innocent victims amid all this fun, the unreliable business associate, the seemingly wholesome family gatherings filtered through the lens of crass materialism.

Indeed, the film’s central thesis is handily signposted by its choice of influences, its central metaphor all but inevitable given its storytelling sensibility. Ramona handily sums up the film’s themes when she tells Jessica, “Let me tell you something. This whole city – this whole country – is a strip club.” It’s a twist on the familiar subtext of the gangster genre that has been codified by Scorsese, the idea that the United States (if not the world) is really just a larger corporation or criminal empire or con job. (At least Ramona avoids a clumsy title drop by reminding the audience that the whole country is a hustle.)

This is not a fatal flaw, to be clear. After all, there are worse directors to emulate than Martin Scorsese, and there is a reason that his approach to this sort of material has become a standard unto itself. Modern cinema owes a lot to Scorsese. The concern isn’t the size of the debt, but the quality of the homage. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is no lesser a film for being so upfront about its influence, to pick an example. There is nothing wrong with choosing to tell a story in a manner that works. Hustlers certainly works.

In fact, there’s something almost slyly subversive in applying the template of traditionally hyper-masculine gangster films and applying it to a movie about strippers. Hustlers doesn’t manage to reach the heights of its influences, but very few films do. However, Scafaria does a good job keeping pace with Scorsese. The film pulses and flows, understanding that pacing is as important as style. There’s a sense that Scafaria is having fun with Scorsese’s stylistic playbook. At one point in the film, the whip-pan introduction of a group of strippers becomes a recurring joke that hinges on the hyperstylised camera movement.

Outside of its obvious influences and debts, Hustlers is anchored in a set of strong performances. A lot of the casting seems cheeky and knowing, with Scafaria stacking the supporting cast with popular artists who have minimal acting experience, but who will undoubtedly boost the film’s profile. Lizzo earns only her second acting credit following a voice-over role in Ugly Dolls, as a flute-playing stripper named “Liz.” Similarly, Cardi B appears in her second acting role following a guest spot on The Life of Mary Jane, but playing a role that very consciously nods to her own past as a stripper.

There is something very sly and very knowing in this casting, along with a mid-movie cameo from a famous male artist who visits the club. Hustlers is very much hustling, playing with both audience expectations and anticipation. Lizzo and Cardi B are not actors, and Hustlers does not use them as such. Despite prominent placing in the marketing material and above the line in terms of credits, Hustlers includes them simply as way of attracting attention from media or audiences. It’s a canny and clever choice, a self-aware acknowledgement of its own central themes. Lizzo and Cardi B are cast to get audiences in the door.

However, the heart of Hustlers is the dynamic between Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. Lopez has always been a commanding screen presence, as demonstrated by her work in films like Out of Sight. However, her screen career has been marked by poor choices that fail to capitalise on her strengths as a performer. Lopez is a solid romantic lead in films like Monster in Law or Maid in Manhattan and plausible anchor for mid-tier thrillers like The Cell or The Boy Next Door, but has been capable of much more than those films demand of her.

As Ramona, Lopez is allowed to be commanding and assertive, to be forceful and to be in control. As the ring-leader who organised the scam at the heart of the film, Ramona needs to be convincing, confident and seductive. Hustlers then shrewdly juxtaposes Lopez’s easy assuredness with Constance Wu’s more awkward earnestness. Wu’s screen persona is largely built around more wholesome roles, as a wife and mother in Fresh Off the Boat or as the innocent romantic lead in Crazy Rich Asians. Even as a stripper, Wu carries over some of that basic decency, helping to anchor the film in contrast to Lopez’s brashness.

Hustler eases through its runtime with a charming sense of humor and charm. As with Goodfellas or Casino, there’s a strong sense that Hustlers understands the seductive power of money. When Dorothy first catches sight of Ramona, the older stripper is fanning herself with a wad of cash. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” she asks. Scafaria continually reinforces the connection between money, sex and power; one stripping scene is punctuated by insert shots of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills hitting the leather couch surface, while the tempo of the film is set to credit card machines flashing “approved.”

Although the film’s cinematography and choreography is impressive, the sound design deserves special mention. Hustlers sounds opulent. Even when money isn’t on screen, it is frequently heard in the background. Even in the seemingly tranquil talking head scenes between Dorothy and Jessica, the audience can hear the constant jangle of Dorothy’s gold chains. It’s an effective visual and aural metaphor for the larger themes at play, the greed that drove Dorothy to do what she did and how much of her material worth it tied to her own body.

Hustlers embraces the moral ambiguity at the heart of the story. This is a tale of strippers swindling the executives who pushed the economy to the point of collapse. It would be easy for Hustlers to embrace a comforting narrative of working girl empowerment, to craft a story of exploited women robbing from the rich and giving to themselves as a form of karmic justice. There are moments when Hustlers even plays with this expectation, inviting the audience to read the film as a story of sisters doing it for themselves. After all, who doesn’t want to see the men who crippled the economy facing some form of poetic justice?

This is perhaps the film’s strongest invocation of the Scorsese aesthetic, walking that fine line between wish fulfillment and moral commentary. Hustlers knows what the audience wants from a film like this, and indulges that just enough to help it land its central moral point. Hustlers is a much muddier and murkier story than a one- or two-line summary might make it sound, one that acknowledges the cynicism at the heart of Ramona’s schemes and swindles. “If we didn’t do it, somebody else would have,” she offers by way of justification for her crimes. Even then, Hustlers understands that these women were still the ones who did it.

Hustlers is clever, canny and candid. What’s not to appreciate?

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