Jennifer Lopez and Company set out to Steal From the Rich
DIRECTED BY LORENE SCAFARIA/2019
Director Lorene Scafaria writes the screenplay for Hustlers from a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, where a group of strippers from a New York club try to deal with effects of the 2008 economic meltdown by finding a new way to fleece their clients, and get themselves rich in the process. Scafaria was the director of two previous feature length films, The Meddler, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. While both of those films had a quirky charm with empathetic characters that helped make a larger commentary on the world around us, Hustlers tries to be something else entirely. The stripping away of that charm proves to be an Achilles high-heel of the film, as does the misleading notion of the film’s plot and the idea of revenge.
In all of the advertisements, and in official plot synopsis, Hustlers describes itself as a sort of revenge film where by the girls of this particular New York strip club get even with their wealthy Wall Street executive clients. The problem is that while the film establishes where these guys work (even classifying them in 3 distinct categories to determine who has the most money to fleece), there is nothing to suggest why these men should be targeted for the girls’ scheme other than they are rich and won’t worry about losing some money here and there.
A throwaway line suggests that because of the 2008 economic crash and not one person from Wall Street going to jail as a result of the financial mismanagement that led to that event, that is justifiable that these women engage in their plan to drug these men, drag them to the club and use their credit card for “services”, when really they are just stealing everything. It is a loose premise in the way the film develops it. The article this film is based on documents this as a real event, so maybe that revenge angle was really there, but it is not developed directly in the film. Seeing one injustice in the world doesn’t justify you committing whatever illegal acts you want as the characters in the film seem to use as their motivation. They basically convey the idea of “Why should they (Wall Street executives) get to have their money and not us?” as their rationale, not “let’s get even”.
Had these girls been shown to have been personally victimized by these men financially, then the story could have built a credible reason to empathize with the women if their motive was actual revenge. The way a few of the men treat these women in the club would have more than justified direct revenge, but that isn’t really dealt with. Instead, their targets start off as complete strangers that they choose based on the man’s dress, their watch, or even their shoes. Only later do the women start targeting previous clients they knew at the club.
So how is targeting random strangers, revenge? Instead, these women are just mad the business of the club has died down and they’re looking for a “hustle” to get money flowing again, like it was in pre-2008 times. They also claim that “no one will get hurt” through their scheme, but if its revenge you’re after, and not just a hustle to fleece some rich guys of some cash, why worry about that? Since they’re drugging these men, there would be some worry about these men not having a reaction to the drug but their worry about “getting hurt” is not always about that specifically, but used as a way of trying to show that the women still possess a little humanity in spite of their scheme.
Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) plays Destiny, a newbie to the strip club who longs to make some money to get her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) out of debt and insure she can be independent. She struggles at the club until she is mentored by the club’s top draw, Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez (The Wedding Planner). Together, they form a friendship, and formidable business tandem that sees their financial fortunes skyrocket until the 2008 crash. Afterwards, it is this relationship that anchors the plot they will launch with their club co-workers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart).
Despite the entire story being built on the loose premise of revenge, their are some bright spots. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez both give strong performances and they are able to bring some credibility and believably to the story which elevates the rest of it. Constance Wu, in particular, has the better character arc of the two and it allows her to explore more sides of her character. We see her insecurities as a new employee at the club, her growing confidence of who she is as a person, her failures in relationships, and her struggle as a mother. Her relationship with her grandmother is the most grounded relationship in the entire film that a viewer can latch on to when trying to relate to these characters.
Lopez gives a nuanced performance where the strength of her portrayal lies in the subtly of her approach. She is consistently a strong and confident character throughout, occasionally letting you see the more tender side of her nature when she is around her daughter, or when she is “mothering” the other workers at the club. The exterior her character exudes is one that doesn’t crack, and Lopez plays this up brilliantly. Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Mercedes Ruehl are all strong in their supporting roles, each providing their own brand of humor to the situation. Cardi B gets some top billing, but her screen time is not as significant as her billing, and she just seems to play a different version of public persona and nothing more.
In the end, we see that the entire story is being told to a reporter named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), which seems to be a substitute for the real-life writer of the article, Jessica Pressler, whereby Jennifer Lopez’s character relates the whole point of the film’s commentary by declaring that the world is a strip club where some people are throwing the money and others are doing the dance. Its a fine analogy if the film had actually tried to fully develop that angle. Instead, the entire third act feels like the “stripper version” of The Big Short. My feeling about this was confirmed when that film’s director, Adam McKay, and his fellow producer Will Ferrell’s names popped up in the credits.
Hustlers, despite being based on real events, doesn’t quite know which angle it wants to address. Is this about these particular women who for years perpetrated this fleecing scheme in New York? Is it a social commentary on the corruption of Wall Street and how anyone who works there deserves to be drugged and robbed? Is it a depiction of how we all like to justify our wrong behavior by justifying it in comparison with other evils in our world? Or is it just a polished looking story with strong performances from its leads that really operates on its audience like the scheme at the center of it: a con job and fleecing of anyone who watches it?