Cinema Dispatch: Hustlers

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Hustlers and all the images you see in this review are owned by STXfilms

Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Have I mentioned before that BASED ON A TRUE STORY is a tagline that fills me with dread and anxiety?  Yeah, it’s never fun having to be historian of sorts (or even just read a few articles) to make sure that you aren’t being unfair to a movie because you don’t know everything around it, and frankly they tend to have rather unimpressive endings because life rarely ends on a BANG.  Still, the premise looks interesting enough and I don’t need much of a reason to enjoy seeing rich people get screwed over, so maybe this will turn out to be a fun time even with the FACTS OF THE STORY hanging around its neck like an albatross!  Maybe it’s a NICE albatross!  You ever think of that!?  Anyway, is this piece of late stage capitalism bashing yet another cathartic bit of enjoyable escapism, or is the only good thing that’ll come out of this movie the awesome dance moves that Jennifer Lopez learned while making it?  Let’s find out!!

Dorothy, AKA Destiny (Constance Wu), is a stripper who has just started working at a big club in New York City, but despite the promises of big money she finds that she’s not quite fitting in with the clientele and that management is taking out HUGE chunks of her paycheck for various “services” that let her keep working there.  If only there was an extremely talented stripper there who can show her the ropes and make her into a star, but what are the chances of THAT, am I right!?  Oh wait, what about Ramona (Jennifer Lopez)?  Yeah, she makes a bunch of money and makes it look totally effortless in the process!  With her tutelage, Dorothy does manage to find her niche there and makes more money than she ever had before, but the plot twist here is that this is all ACTUALLY taking place in 2007 and the big financial crash that wiped out this entire country is about to hit their industry hard; especially since their big paying clients are Wall Street guys who are now broke.  Well not BROKE broke like everyone else, but they’ve become rather stingy with their dollars and now no one can make money in this business which is particularly bad for Dorothy who has an elderly grandmother to take care of as well as a kid she’s raising by herself.  Once the dust settles from the crash, Dorothy eventually goes in on a scheme that Ramona has set up along with fellow co-workers Mercedes and Annabelle (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) to drug these rich penny pinching punks with stuff that’ll make them happy, pliable, and forgetful so they can then run up their credit cards on all sorts of services that they get a kickback on.  Sounds like a great plan if you ask me, especially since none of these jerks went to jail for tanking the housing market, but a good thing can never seem to last and so things start to unravel over time as Dorothy starts to question whether Ramona is truly looking out for all of them or just for herself.  Can Dorothy get enough money to take care of her biological family while ALSO keeping her new family safe and away from inquiring eyes?  Just how much do they plan on getting away with before someone will eventually catch on, or are they hoping to steal back every penny these investment firm jerkwads took from the American public?  Does anyone else think these ladies should be in line for the next Captain America?  Taking money from these guys seems to me about as patriotic as apple pie and The Cheesecake Factory!

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Jennifer Lopez 2020

It kind of loses direction towards the end, but this movie is such a gem otherwise that the lackluster conclusion doesn’t detract much from it, and I get the feeling that this is due to the nature of the true story that this is based on; not necessarily excusing it, but giving it a bit of context.  If anything the movie feels like a spiritual successor to The Big Short which is probably more than just a coincidence as that movie’s director, Adam McKay, is a producer on here.  It’s one of those movies that can be stylish, gaudy, and relish in its excesses, but also has enough going on under the hood to make it more than just a hedonistic joy ride; mostly due to the phenomenal performances throughout and a cleverly constructed narrative.  It would be easy to just let this ride on its surface level appeals or to go too far in the other direction and make this a pedantic admonishment of the culture in which it takes place, and while either one of those could have been GOOD movies, this one takes the much harder route of threading the needle between the two and becomes something close to a GREAT movie because of it.

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“Ask me about my tragic backstory!  I’ll give you a good price on it!”

The comparisons to The Big Short are a good way to start this out as both movies cover similar topics and approach it with similar creative verve, but are from vastly different perspectives.  The Big Short wasn’t NECESSARILY from the perspective of those who ruined our economy, but they were definitely the PEERS of those individuals and so could view it almost from the outside looking in; not really affected by the disaster but a witness to it.  This is directly about those who were negatively impacted by the financial crash of 2008 and are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives while finding some way to exact petty revenge against those who wronged them which is very much the point of view from the working class, but this is about a segment of the working class that rarely ever gets the attention or support that it needs and that’s where this movie gets its strength.  It has the flash and cheap vice of Wall Street, but almost in a mechanical way as we see the machinery at work to provide the fantasy and the lifestyle that these guys expect to have with all their power and influence.  The seedy underbelly that these men revel in is the stock and trade of these working class women who have made careers and eventually criminal enterprises out of exploiting that desire for glits, glamour, and control, and yet despite seemingly having this power of manipulation they are always being underestimated and shortchanged by society at large meaning they occupy this space of total uncertainty where one day could be full of nice apartments, designer clothes, and empowering relationships while the next can be full of abuse, hardship, poverty, and betrayal.  The roller coaster of emotions and stakes does a great job of keeping the pace from ever falling flat or the film from getting tedious.  Maybe a few moments here and there drag a bit, but overall it’s a very brisk and engaging watch as these characters have to adapt to each new situation and put their well-honed skills to the test in riskier and riskier situations.

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“Okay, so our next client is some dude named Acula.  I think he’s a doctor or something.”     “Is she being serious right now?”

Unfortunately though, the point where things get TOO risky is where the film started to lose me a bit, so let’s talk about motivation and power fantasies.  Being a straight white dude in the middle class, I can’t say that I related to these women’s situations or have much insight to give about their plight, but there is a cathartic element to this as these women stealing from the rich and giving back to themselves even if it crosses the moral line of putting these men in direct physical harm; what with them being drugged against their knowledge and obviously their consent.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I really wasn’t bothered by this and the movie frankly doesn’t seem to want you to be either as the framing device which seems to be the moral clarity of the film doesn’t seem judgmental about the scheme even with some notable hesitations about the… let’s call it methodology.  Back in the day the power fantasy was to be a successful gangster like Scarface or one of the Corleone’s, today it’s righteously eating the rich for their sins; but like gangster films of the past we eventually have to get the CRIME DOES NOT PAY section of the story and yet the film seems rather conflicted when we get there.  For one, there comes a point where Jennifer Lopez pretty much inexplicably starts to break the rules that she set in place to protect everyone for reasons that I, as well as the film, aren’t quite sure of.  I’m assuming it’s because that’s how the story went in real life, but for the narrative we see in this movie I just don’t really get why things start to go downhill other than outright ego which would be valid even if clichéd, but the film can’t even seem to take THAT solid of a stand on this character by the end and it’s all kind of a mess of hemming and hawing over the central idea of the movie and what we’re supposed to think of Jennifer Lopez.  Where the thrust of the movie managed to find a middle ground between indulgence and condemnation of the materialistic society that Wall Street will pay good money to create, the ending needed to be much more decisive as far as I’m concerned and the middle ground at that point in the movie is kind of disappointing to see.

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Hero?  Villain?  Perhaps both?  Maybe neither!?  How about forty percent villain, thirty-five percent hero, and twenty-five percent chaotic neutral!?

There’s certainly more to talk about regarding this movie, albeit it most of it is just the nuts and bolts of the production.  As I said, it doesn’t have AS much flash and style as The Big Short (at no point do they break the fourth wall here), but the cinematography is on point with good use of color pallets and camera techniques to convey the ever changing mood throughout the movie; opting for vibrant colors and smooth movements during the fantastical and hedonistic moments and going for handheld and washed out whenever things have to get more serious.  The framing device as well does a good job of teasing out little mysteries for us to be invested in discovering as the narrative goes along, and it provides a solid foundation for the rest of the movie to build upon which helps it from seeming inconsistent whenever it decides to change its tone.  The acting of course is top notch with (Jennifer Lopez) doing great as the iconic villain and Constance Wu being the point of view character from which we see all the events unfold.  It’s a setup that we’ve seen numerous times in other movies like say The Departed (Lopez as Nicholson and Wu as if DeCaprio and Damon were fused into one super Bostonian), but with the fresh perspective that this movie has it makes sense to use a dynamic the audience is familiar with and can easily latch onto.

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That movie would have been even better if Leo and Nicholson did this.

The same way that the new Star Wars movies are great BECAUSE they are so familiar and use that to make the differences stand out all the more, this movie is far from the first to cover the 2008 financial crisis or about the rise and fall of a criminal organization, but it still manages to rise above its well-trod premise to show a perspective we rarely see in movies and one that turns out to be rather engaging to experience.  It’s certainly a great time at the movies and I would recommend checking it out if you get the chance.  Is it a contender for my best of the year list?  Maybe, maybe not; in any case it’s definitely given us another reason to love Jennifer Lopez, and if this leads to her playing Batman, well we have something else to point to once the Gigli haters start making a fuss again.

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