11 December 2019

Taking What's Owed

Review: Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

The hype is real for me. J. Lo's performance. The movie itself. A movie that critic David Sims of The Atlantic rightly called "a lush, lavish joy that's difficult to forget." And that's not just because it is one of the most visually striking films of the year (and not just because J. Lo, at 50, is some sort of freak-goddess of sexual power). In its way, Lorene Scafaria's film, based on the story of NYC strippers who took control of the excess of their excessive world and got way more than a stack of singles.

Constance Wu has been downplayed in the hype. The charisma of Jennifer Lopez, the actress, has never been stronger, which places her at the front of the collective mind on this film. But Wu is the star, the main protagonist, and her performance as Destiny, a daughter of immigrants raised by her grandparents, finding a life in a seedy world under the wing of Ramona (J. Lo), the older sister or mother figure Destiny (actually Dorothy) needed, is one of my favorites of the year.

The journey of this story plays a bit like Scorsese a la Goodfellas. Many have tried. Few succeed. Works for me here. I love a female-powered, female-led, female-directed take on the style. The stripping scenes early on find the right balance between the giddy fun and the knowing seediness of strip clubs (you'll definitely know what I mean if you've been to one). The framing device, a reporter (Julia Stiles) interviewing Destiny after the fact, grinding the story into itself bit by bit, is a smart move by Scafaria, the screenwriter. It allows us to feel the arc of the 2008 financial crisis, moving us effortlessly from 2007 and then to the post-bubble burst, where the busted out day traders lost their ability to sling money around. Alas, the high rollers were still rolling high, so there's the next move for Ramona and Destiny and an assortment of "sisters" willing to get in on the main con, drugging these wealthy men into handing over their credit cards in the VIP room.

It's delightful watching these women take what they deserve. (One of the early capers is scored to Scott Walker's "Next" and pretty much represents why I love movies.) But it's also sad that a line of work exists for women that is purely in service of the id of men with too much money. Hustlers tackles that too, judgment-free. It's refreshing. Lesser movies would have a character try to convince Dorothy that stripping is bad and that she's better than that. Undereducated women, especially women of color, have few options, and they know going in it that this job ain't no picnic. But it pays...well, and even better for those willing to test its limits, or even surpass them. This movie knows that too. Again, it's this vein that Wu taps so well. Her performance is outstanding. She doesn't want to be doing what she's doing, but if she's going to do it, she's going to get hers. She needs money, and she wants it on her terms. That is a message of power. Men take what they want, and we applaud them. A woman does it, and she is [insert negative comment about women here].

Hustlers is about women who care for each other, look out for each other, and forge friendships that transcend wrong-doing and wouldn't even consider betrayal. J. Lo's Ramona is a woman who nurtures and supports. Even when she is doing the wrong thing, taking it one step too far, she has more than enough love to give. Destiny constantly gets mad at her for taking in the desperate cases, former stripper friends-turned-drug addicts, petty criminals landing in jail for this or that. She is always there to bail them out, and too trusting, the downfall of many a good person.

One of my favorite movies of the last few years is David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, the story of ne'er-do-well brothers from West Texas who take to robbing banks to save their family's farm. They are nice, poor people, who have been given no other choice in the wake of the irresponsibility of rich White men born to make other rich White men richer. It's so fun to watch. And that's it...Hustlers is a slick, fun movie, also loaded with perfectly performed pathos, about good people turned outlaw because they've been given no other choice.


Screened at home on Blu-Ray from Redbox.  

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