Film Reviews

Hustlers: The Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year

Hustlers is a movie about the unintended and largely ignored consequences of capitalism. It is also a movie about sisterhood, empowerment, the plight of sex workers, the difference between righteous retribution and pure greed, and the thin line between journalism and advocacy. Mostly, though, Hustlers is a movie about just how good Jennifer Lopez is at being Jennifer Lopez.

I don’t say that as an insult nor am I attempting to imply the “Jenny from the Block” singer is just playing some version of herself, like the way Ally=Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. No, Hustlers’ Ramona Vega – a brash, outwardly sexual, supremely self-confident exotic dancer with mother hen tendencies and a knack for working all the angles – is a character quite dissimilar to Lopez’s public persona. However, there is something about watching Lopez completely light up the screen as Ramona that reminds us what a movie star looks like. Cliched phrases like “screen presence” suddenly have meaning again, and the collision of Lopez’s public persona and related baggage (Bennifer, anyone?) with her actual performance only adds to the “I can’t look away” of it all.

We’ve forgotten what this feels like. In Hollywood’s great, underappreciated labor struggle of the past two decades, the studios have been in constant battle with the movie stars, fighting to take back all the power the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryans, Julia Roberts, Demi Moores, Tom Cruises, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world fought so hard to gain back when times were good, the profit windows more reliable, and the number of entertainment options far more limited. The studios won. If movie stars still existed, people would actually pay to see the random dramas and comedies Elizabeth Olson, Dave Bautista, Chris Hemsworth, and other Marvel actors dare to make in-between their bouts of CGI superhero crimefighting. That doesn’t happen because we don’t have movie stars anymore; we have brands.

That’s neither completely good nor completely bad. Thanks to peak TV, actors have never before had as many creatively challenging, soul-nourishing, or – if you just want to do a CBS procedural – bank account-padding options available to them as they do now. As audience members, we’re no longer obliged to follow our favorite stars down every poorly chosen path. (Anyone remember paying to see something like Mary Reilly just because Julia Roberts was in it?) Heck, Jennifer Lopez, no stranger to bad movies, has taken advantage of this new era, devoting the past three years of her career to proving her acting bonafides as the star of the gritty NBC cop drama Shades of Blue.

Lopez in Shades of Blue

There’s still, however, something special about seeing a movie star command the big screen. That’s what Jennifer Lopez does through every second of Hustlers, from her jaw-dropping opening striptease number – keep reminding yourself, this physically flawless human being is 50! – to her spell-out-the-theme-of-the-movie final speech. Screenwriter/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) – adapting Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article – has given Lopez the type of part men have been playing for years in one Goodfellas knock-off after another, and she rises to the occasion. The Oscar campaign begins now.

But – and this might surprise some based on the trailers and the critical response so far – this isn’t actually Jennifer Lopez’s movie. She steals it, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not meant to be the focal point. That part falls to Constance Wu’s Destiny, a second-generation Cambodian immigrant abandoned by her mom as a child, raised by her grandmother, and basically unhirable as an adult due to her high school-level education and lack of work experience. She’s the actual main character of the story.

Not too long after turning to stripping in one of New York City’s best clubs, Destiny begs her way into becoming Ramona’s protege and the two quickly form a killer duo, prowling the floor like lionesses and escorting men up to the Champagne Room for a dance. If the men weren’t so focused on the gyrating body parts in front of them they’d notice Desinity’s eyes are almost always transfixed on Ramona, not them. She is perpetually in awe of this goddess of a woman, looking at her in much the same way Rooney Mara looks at Cate Blanchette throughout Carol. You’re never sure if there is romance on the horizon between the pair or if Destiny simply adores Ramona like she would her own mother.

You’re also not sure where the movie is going with all of this. What we’re watching is all happening in 2007, but then at some point, we quickly cut to 2014, a time when Destiny is talking to Julia Stiles’ version of Jessica Pressler. This version of Destiny is more put-together and traditionally presentable, sitting in a gorgeous suburban home, with the only hint of her scandalous past being the garish gold earrings and necklaces she proudly models. How did she get from there to here? And why does she have such a chill to her voice when she mentions Ramona?

Then we cut to 2008. That’s when Hustlers truly begins and reveals its mission statement, which means the rest of the review must run with a spoiler warning.

So many Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, and Scorese-aping tales of American greed and corruption revolve around criminal men and inevitably feature montages where their ill-gotten gains lead to gorgeous, half-naked women all around. Hustlers dares to ask what that experience is like for those women, and what happens to them when the money goes away. In this case, what happened to New York City’s strippers when the economy collapsed in 2008 and their core clientele – Wall Street bankers – either lost their jobs or cushy expense accounts?

The answer: some of them quit and tried to make due with 9-to-5 retail jobs, others hitched their wagon to irresponsible men, and yet others stayed at it, hoping the good days would come back again despite all the signs saying otherwise. (“These new Russian girls will blow the guys for $300 a pop” becomes a sign of the end times.)

Ramona tries the 9-to-5 life, but can’t make the schedules work as a single mom. Destiny takes a stab at domesticity and has a daughter but the dad runs out on them after just two and a half years. An old friend from their stripping days (Keke Pfeiffer’s Mercedes), as well as a new friend (Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle), have similar hard-luck experiences.

By 2011, they’ve all had enough and hatch their hustle, one which involves meeting men at nearby bars, drugging and escorting them back to the strip club, and then maxing out their credit cards. It’s dependent on hungover Wall Street types never looking into why they charged $5,000 at a strip club they don’t remember attending, and it’s morally ok because “these are the same assholes who destroyed this country and not one of them went to jail” Ramona argues. Soon enough, the girls have more money than they ever imagined possible. Cue montages of exorbitant shopping sprees.

Yet, even as the “then they got crazy rich” portion of this doomed crime story plays out Scafaria never loses track of Ramona and Destiny’s relationship. On one glorious Christmas morning, for example, all of the girls and their kids – pay attention and you’ll notice there isn’t a single man in the scene – gather to share Christmas presents. It’s genuinely touching to see Ramona and Destinity open their perfectly-selected, clearly-expensive gifts, each of them happily settled into their mother-daughter thing.

Where Hustlers falters is in the inevitable downfall portion of the story. For reasons never fully explored, Ramona’s greed grows out of control and she takes on a new protege (pictured above) clearly unworthy of her infinite patience. However, it plays out this way largely because it’s all happening through Destiny’s point of view, and she clearly does not like this new side of Ramona or the competition for her affection. (Faint shades of the Jared Leto, Brad Pitt, Ed Norton conflict in Fight Club). Scafaria’s script pulls off a couple of neat tricks in this area, such as temporarily dropping all of the audio when the 2014 Destiny grows hostile toward the reporter, turns off her tape recorder, and throws her out of the house.

Anyone who has read Jessica Pressler’s article knows the real Destiny – real name Roselyn Keo – is unpredictable and, by her own admission, not 100% reliable. When they sent the final article for her approval, she recanted everything and claimed she made it all up even though everyone else in the story had already corroborated her account of events. Then, days later, she recanted her recanting, telling Pressler “I am saving myself. I am out for myself.”

That line – even though it never actually makes it into the movie – serves as the central tragedy of Hustlers. In the end, the women have to look out for themselves, but for a brief period, they’d formed a wonderful sisterhood. The morality of how they got there is obviously dubious. (Stiles’ journalist, much as the real Jessica Pressler, admits she sides with the women over the men they conned.) But for a while they had a good thing going, and Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu makes this a joy to behold.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. Lorene Scafaria takes all the Goodfellas comparisons – it’s not just the subject matter but also the use of pop music and montage that strikes a familiar chord – as a compliment.
  2. Once Hustlers jumps to 2008, there are precious few actual strip scenes, but the dance sequences we do see are always filmed with the intent to impress instead of titillate. Scafaria – like Katt Shea before her with 1987’s Stripped to Kill – is clearly in awe of the physicality it takes to pole dance.
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4 comments

  1. I saw this movie last weekend as part of the Book-to-Movie Adaptation group (they occassionally include articles-to-film adaptations).

    It was pretty good. After reading the article but before seeing the movie, I thought the article had everything needed for a good adaptation. It had a strong structure to build upon. In particular, it had conflict between the two protagonists that is part of their downfall. You’re right about the downfall part being too rushed. I was expecting more screen time to be given to these women building their organized crime empire. Like a good version of “Good Girls”. Ha.

    I also liked how they used sound and music. eg silence when the tape recorder was off but unlike The Last Jedi, nobody shouted “OH MY GAWD!” I liked how they played a Frankie Valli song not long after Destiny’s grandma said Valli had hit on her in their youth.

    1. The magazine article-to-film adaptation pipeline is quite rich these days. There’s a new Hollywood talent agency that specializes entirely in representation jouranlists looking to get their magazine article adapted into a film or TV show. I think maybe it’s a reflection of our dwindling attention spans/increasingly hectic lives or, more likely, that fewer and fewer people in Hollywood read books these days. They read articles, comic books, and listen to podcasts to get ideas – or just pilfer their studio’s IP catalog. Also, thanks to the streaming era there is an emerging belief that books – not all, but a lot – are simply better suited to a binge-worthy TV show than a “how can I cram 400 pages into two hours” movie. See: The Goldfinch for example.

      As for Hustlers, this is one of the first times I’ve ever seen a movie that felt exactly like reading the article. The way they incorporated Julia Stiles’ stand-in journalist for the real article’s author and thus allowed her to offer her observations exactly the way the Hustlers journalist does – at times, it was almost distracting for me. I ultimatley think the article is more interesting than the movie. As I pointed out in the review, the article closes with the reveal that the author doesn’t really know what to make of the Constance Wu counterpart – was she making it up, was she hustling her just like she hustled the Wall Street assholes, was she ultimately kind of a sad character who needed friends.

      The film never goes as far as suggesting a possible unreliable narrator like that. Instead, they really picked up on the way the article touches on the central friendship and how at the end of the day these two hustlers lost each other as friends and that’s the ultimate tragedy. I know that since the movie has come out it’s been sued for defamation by the Jennifer Lopez IRL counterpart, and she’s given interviews claiming the film’s emphasis on the friendship greatly exaggerates that central relationship. The director AND the original article article stand by their work, and I heard an interview with the article author in which she admitted she had no idea she would end up a character in the movie until she read that Julia Stiles had been cast. They look vaguely similar and are roughly the same age. To help her prepare for the role, the author hung out with Stiles for a little bit. They mostly talked about their kids.

      “I also liked how they used sound and music. eg silence when the tape recorder was off but unlike The Last Jedi, nobody shouted “OH MY GAWD!” I liked how they played a Frankie Valli song not long after Destiny’s grandma said Valli had hit on her in their youth.”

      Both excellent points. Yeah, thankfully theaters didn’t have to post notices in the lobby saying, “Hey, at one important point ht sound goes out. Don’t come bitching to us about it.That’s on the filmmakers. It’s a part of the movie, and it’s pretty cool. Just roll with it.” Except, ya know, they wouldn’t have phrased it quite that way 🙂

  2. > The magazine article-to-film adaptation pipeline is quite rich these days.

    It is! Our group saw “The Old Man and the Gun” last year too. Why is Casey Affleck still working in Hollywood? Why did they even have that role?

    > There’s a new Hollywood talent agency that specializes entirely in representation jouranlists looking to get their magazine article adapted into a film or TV show.

    That’s interesting. There was a time that journalists and academics had to expand their research to cover a book before it would be optioned. I kept thinking of how I read “The Big Short” while watching “Hustlers”. Two very different sources and outcomes but both are fully or partially set around the GFC.

    > Also, thanks to the streaming era there is an emerging belief that books – not all, but a lot – are simply better suited to a binge-worthy TV show than a “how can I cram 400 pages into two hours” movie. See: The Goldfinch for example.

    I’ve seen too many bad book-to-single film adaptations. Everybody has. I haven’t seen many book-to-multiple film adaptions though – mainly because The Hobbit part 1 was so meh and I never got into YFA of Jennifer Lawrence films. I imagine it’s a lucrative market when they can do back to back films and there’s more job security.
    I still need to go back and catch up with the rest of “The Man in the High Castle”.

    > I ultimatley think the article is more interesting than the movie. As I pointed out in the review, the article closes with the reveal that the author doesn’t really know what to make of the Constance Wu counterpart – was she making it up, was she hustling her just like she hustled the Wall Street assholes, was she ultimately kind of a sad character who needed friends.

    I liked some of the added bits such as the attractive always-vomiting co-worker. I didn’t find the additional theme of family too bad but the grandmother passing away on the same night as the bad bad night was a stretch.

    > The film never goes as far as suggesting a possible unreliable narrator like that. Instead, they really picked up on the way the article touches on the central friendship and how at the end of the day these two hustlers lost each other as friends and that’s the ultimate tragedy. I know that since the movie has come out it’s been sued for defamation by the Jennifer Lopez IRL counterpart, and she’s given interviews claiming the film’s emphasis on the friendship greatly exaggerates that central relationship.

    I was wondering about the name changes. Of course, the film still credits the journalist.

    > The director AND the original article article stand by their work, and I heard an interview with the article author in which she admitted she had no idea she would end up a character in the movie until she read that Julia Stiles had been cast. They look vaguely similar and are roughly the same age. To help her prepare for the role, the author hung out with Stiles for a little bit. They mostly talked about their kids.

    If the journalist has it as an audio recording that’s something to stand by. I still have all the master copies of interviews I did when I was a journalism student. Anyway, if I recall correctly, both central figures now have book deals so they can release their own account in their own words.
    However, there’s still unanswered questions for now such as how they managed to keep all their money (minus lawyer fees) and there are usually laws against profiting from crime, even writing books afterwards.

    1. “It is! Our group saw “The Old Man and the Gun” last year too. Why is Casey Affleck still working in Hollywood? Why did they even have that role?”

      For me, even if that character had been played by someone other than Casey Affleck it would have been a tad distracting. This was Robert Redford’s final starring role – aside from his cameo in Avengers: Endgame – and it is this interesting story about an old man who can’t quite change his ways no matter how many times life gives him an off-ramp, yet we keep cutting to this sad middle-aged cop who sorta, kinda finds a new lease on life while tracking the old bank robber. The way it comes across in the film is that the other guy is pulling focus from Redford too much.

      Anyway, other examples of recent movies based on articles include War Dogs and Kodachrome.

      “That’s interesting. There was a time that journalists and academics had to expand their research to cover a book before it would be optioned.”

      Historically, that’s true, and the clearest path to getting a film adaptation is through writing a book or expanding an article you wrote into a book, which was the case for Beautiful Boy. Every once and while, a magazine article would become a film, like Argo or American Gangster, but books are optioned all the time. It’s just in the past handful of years that some agents in Hollywood have tried to establish a network of contacts and a pipeline of talent to push the idea of simply optioning articles instead of waiting for the book. It’s just one of the many different ways Hollywood is adapting to the times to try to find material audiences will care about. Two-Sentence Horror Stories, for example, was adapted from a Reddit thread, Channel Zero was adapted from internet forum short stories, Homecoming, Lore, and Dirty John came from podcasts.

      “I kept thinking of how I read “The Big Short” while watching “Hustlers”. Two very different sources and outcomes but both are fully or partially set around the GFC.”

      There is a steadily growing sub-genre of films about the GFC. In addition to Big Short and Hustlers, there’s also the Julia Roberts/George Clooney two-hander Money Monster, 99 Homes, Margin Call, and a whole swath of documentaries. My favorite is The Queen of Versailles. It’s like a Schitt’s Creek prequel but real. The GFC, as well as the sheer economics of Hustlers, was definitely on my mind when I said this is a film that is at some level about the unintended consequences of capitalism. It’s a story about what happens to people way down the supply chain of capitalism, which is a story we see and hear a lot. We’ve almost enver seen it primarly set in a strip club.

      ” I haven’t seen many book-to-multiple film adaptions though – mainly because The Hobbit part 1 was so meh and I never got into YFA of Jennifer Lawrence films. I imagine it’s a lucrative market when they can do back to back films and there’s more job security.”

      The YA film franchise bubble has definitely burst. For the moment, the idea of adapting a book series into a film franchise doesn’t seem to have much traction. Instead, that has switched over to TV, such as HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Darkest Materials fantasy series.

      “If the journalist has it as an audio recording that’s something to stand by. I still have all the master copies of interviews I did when I was a journalism student”

      She’s covered on that front. It’s mostly that the woman read and approved the article, then changed her mind at the last minute and claimed she made everything up, AND THEN changed her mind again and said to go ahead. It’s in that closing section of the article that the author observes, ultimately, just how lonely this person sounded, and how in those rare moments when she’s not hustling you can see someone who probably just needs a good friend to talk to. That’s what the writer-director Lorene Scafaria picked up on and ran with in the movie.

      “Anyway, if I recall correctly, both central figures now have book deals so they can release their own account in their own words.”

      That’s such a perfect addendum to both the film and article – the key parties have their own big deals and will eventually get to tell their side of the story. In this golden age of white-collar crime, everyone should just get theirs, and anyone who doesn’t is a fool. That’s not ultimately the point of the actual movie, but that does seem to the wider takeaway from the whole affair.

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