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“Hustlers” and the ick factor

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Courtesy of STX Entertainment
2stars
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Mercedes Ruehl, Keke Palmer, Lizzo, Cardi B
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Release Date: Sept. 13, 2019

I’ve had to sit with this one for a while.

Because “Hustlers” made me feel icky – slimy in a way I haven’t felt while watching a movie in a long time. And keep in mind, I just reviewed a documentary about a gay adult book store earlier in the week.

At first, I wondered if I was over-reacting because, on its surface, “Hustlers” is a sweet story of female empowerment and friendship. It is, from a technical standpoint, one of the finest films of last year – impeccably directed with great cinematography, a marvelously diverse soundtrack and a couple of career-best performances from leads Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu.

But I keep coming back to icky.

For a while, I was wondering if I was just being a chauvinistic pig. The fact that the positive reviews of the film on Rotten Tomatoes come from a diverse mix of men and women while the negative reviews come primarily from men made that possibility seem likely. Men are, and will always be, the worst, and I apologize for that.

But I’m not the only person to have some very real problems with the moral worldview of “Hustlers.” When the National Center for Sexual Exploitation calls out your film as being “harmful to women and to society at large,” that shows that something about your female empowerment messaging may have gotten lost in translation.

“Hustlers” is a film that decries the exploitation and objectification of women, but spends a whole lot of time luxuriating in its stars’ bare skin. It is a film that asks us to sneer at the men who abuse our leading ladies- and rightly so- but then expects us to cheer when these women exploit their own abusers.

In other words, it is a film that is built on the concept of exploitation, and it can feel… well, exploitative.

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Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Nearly 400 words in, we best get to the plot, yeah? “Hustlers” is based on a true story of a group of strippers in New York City whose work dried up after the financial crisis of 2008 left much of their clientele without a dime.

Still, the strippers have bills to pay and kids to feed. So Ramona (Lopez) comes up with an idea: Why not drug clients with ketamine and MDMA and then run up their credit cards at the club?

Soon, Ramona and her crew are living like queens. What could go wrong?

Obviously, things do go wrong eventually. But director Lorene Scafaria makes it very clear where her allegiances lie: We’re supposed to cheer for these women as modern-day Robin Hoods sticking it to the (very literal) man.

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Courtesy of STX Entertainment

And indeed, there is a lot to cheer– just consider the women’s desire to provide a better life for their kids and loved ones, the loving sisterhood that forms between the strippers and Ramona’s motherly guidance to partner-in-crime Destiny (Wu).

But cheering for the strippers as they victimize others – even if those others “deserve” it- is a harder sell. At least it was for me.

What comes much easier is praising Scafaria’s many excellent creative choices, starting with casting. Lopez, too long squandering her talents in middling rom-coms, is fantastic – fierce, matronly and intense. She is a force of nature – so much so that I thought to myself “Man, where has this Jennifer Lopez been all this time?”

This is also a star-making turn for Wu who is vulnerable and likable, but also showcases Destiny’s transformation from wide-eyed newcomer to ruthless perpetrator. Wu and Lopez have amazing chemistry together, which makes the film’s central sisterhood the surprisingly touching heart of the picture.

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Courtesy of STX Entertainment

The supporting cast is enjoyably diverse- a former child star, an Academy Award-winner and a couple pop stars among them- and they anchor the film well.  The cinematography by Todd Banhazl is strong, and strip club scenes that could have been messily chaotic pop through his attention to detail and color.

It’s also worth mentioning that the film is the first in a while- maybe ever?- without a musical score. Instead, the film is underscored by a delightfully eclectic sound track comprising everything from Janet Jackson and Britney Spears to the Four Seasons and Frederic Chopin. If there was a film with better needle drops last year, I’ve yet to see it.

But for all the considerable craft in “Hustlers” (rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity), I keep coming back to icky. Acknowledging that sexual exploitation exists doesn’t fully justify wallowing in it for two hours, and solid craft can’t completely justify a film that feels as morally bankrupt as this one does.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

 

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