Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: yes, Hustlers is a high-profile movie about women, made by women and starring women. From a business standpoint, although it’s not a big studio movie, that’s still a great thing. It also could be considered an empowering movie, because it’s about women taking control of their own destinies—and succeeding— in a profession that has long been controlled by men. Again, that is a good thing. There are no major male characters and the stars of the movie are two women of color, one of them who’s actually FIFTY. So, yes, Hustlers is, on paper, a great step forward and deserves to be lauded for all of those things.
Which makes it so ultimately frustrating that the movie is so bad.
Based on a true story, Hustlers is about a group of female strippers who are hit so hard by the recession in 2008 that they feel forced to augment their income by running a side hustle, which included targeting rich, married men, drugging them, and running their credit cards up while they are basically comatose. Set mostly in flashback, we are seeing it through the eyes of one of the women, Destiny, played by Constance Wu, who is telling her story to a magazine reporter, played by Julia Stiles. The clear point-of-view is established well by writer-director Lorene Scafaria, based on the article by Jessica Pressler, but, beyond that, the movie never finds any solid footing as it tries way too hard to be fast-paced, seductive and fun, ending up a choppy, glossy mess.
I mean, let’s get real here: the only real draw this movie has is Jennifer Lopez playing a stripper. And that is no joke, either. Much like everyone was excited to see Lady Gaga in a major motion picture where she acts and sings, there will be no lack of interest in seeing Lopez go back to her acting roots, but, mostly, people will want to see her show off the things she has cultivated the most in the past 22 years: her fame, glamour and beauty. Scafaria knows full well who her star is and takes full advantage of that by using nearly every frame of her film to shoot Lopez in every possible way to highlight her fitness regimen and all her many physical attributes. It helps that Lopez can really act and that this movie finally brings back some of the real talent she showed in her early films, Selena and Out of Sight, but it all feels overshadowed by the fact that Hustlers is not much more than a Jennifer Lopez glamour reel, all furs and makeup, hair and skin. Don’t get me wrong, she is beautiful and talented, and if you take her out of this movie, you have nothing. And, even with her in it, there’s no escaping how flat it falls and how pointless it all feels.
The problem is not only the shameless and obvious pandering to Lopez’s ego that this movie is, but Lopez isn’t even the lead character. Constance Wu is the lead here and, as if the movie didn’t already have enough problems, that is a weight that sinks this movie faster than a stone. While I appreciate the diversity of having an Asian-American woman in the lead of a major film, there are many more actresses who would have been better than Wu. In fact, the movie is nearly saved by all-too-brief scene-stealing turns by pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo, neither of whom is an actress and yet both are better than Wu. Her stiff and cold performance makes Lopez’s really good performance even better, but that still doesn’t help the movie.
Scafaria tries to distract us from the movie’s weaknesses (terrible acting and shamless JLo promotion) by making the movie a quick-edit montage fest. There are perhaps three short scenes in this whole movie where the camera is still, where two characters are actually having a conversation. The rest of the movie has the camera moving, frenetically trying to create the mood of the fast-paced New York strip club world, never stopping, never focusing. We are meant to be carried along on this wild adventure and be swept up into this world of beautiful people, flowing champagne and flying money. It’s all so exciting!!
No, it’s tedious.
Scafaria has a film filled with fascinating characters and colorful actresses, but she never slows down enough to spend any time with them. Even the characters we do get to know, Destiny and Ramona (Lopez), feel thinly drawn and what we know about them is superficial. Even with some attempts at awkward philosophizing, there simply are no levels to this movie, no ebb and flow. It is one tone throughout, with no texture to the characters or the story and seemingly created for an audience with zero attention span.
In the end, Hustlers is clearly not much more than a showcase for Jennifer Lopez. While she is great and fulfills every expectation, even she cannot fix what’s ultimately wrong with this movie as a narrative experience. But a little JLo can go a long way and her star power may just make this movie watchable for a lot of people.