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Baiting for Tonight

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MOVIE REVIEW
Hustlers (2019)

What an entrance. About 10 minutes into “Hustlers,” Jennifer Lopez does a pole-dance routine that will go down in cinematic history as one of the most unforgettable character introductions since Rita Hayworth in “Gilda.” And this time it’s to no less of a song than “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. Constance Wu has nothing to do but stare in shock, and man, do we agree with her. The next scene is of Ms. Lopez in that outfit and a fur coat on a rooftop, smoking and looking so unbelievably beautiful that you almost forget you’re watching a based-on-a-true-story movie about a gang of strippers who drug and rob a bunch of men. As bait to get us on a hook, “Hustlers” uses the power of Ms. Lopez’s body very, very effectively. But it doesn’t reel us in as far as we should.

Ramona (Ms. Lopez) is not even the narrator; that’s Destiny (Ms. Wu), who is telling her side of the story some years after the fact to a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). Ramona and Destiny met under that fur coat and, rather than seeing each other as rivals, they become inseparable friends, bond over their familial responsibilities (Ramona has a teenage daughter; Destiny has a sick grandmother, then later a small daughter of her own) and their contempt for the punters in the club. Ramona teaches Destiny the score – although Ms. Wu never quite loses her visible discomfort at the dancing she’s got to do – and then later also takes Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, who’s essentially playing her “Riverdale” character, and more on that later) under her wings. After the market crash in 2008 and some poor choices by everyone, times are tough. By 2011, Mom (Mercedes Ruehl!) even has to leave the green room and work behind the bar, which is just as well since the new girls are basically nothing but whores. But Ramona and Destiny are not whores. They decide to make their money another way.

Since the conceit with the journalist makes it clear how things are going to end, “Hustlers” is more about the why. It’s clear that writer-director Lorene Scafaria was interested in focusing on the families these women have built for themselves. There’s a tremendous scene early on in the green room where all the girls, including Lizzo and her flute, complain about men. Mercedes has a boyfriend, except he’s in prison; and Annabelle’s family disowned her once they learned she was dancing. In the wonderful, funny Christmas scene, there’s not a single man crowded around the tastefully decorated table.

The movie could have stood to have a lot more of this female solidarity and how incredibly important that is in sex work. More on why Destiny and Ramona have to repeat the line “motherhood is a mental illness,” more about why Mercedes loves her boyfriend so much or how Annabelle stands up to her family. There could have been more of the scene where Destiny sobs as she tells the journalist "sometimes moms need a break." There could even have been a scene explaining why the journalist thought this story was important and how she got the interviews. Instead, we get repeated “Pretty Woman”-esque shopping sequences – although no retail staff are foolish enough to turn anyone away anymore – and unsubtle comparisons of the work the strippers do to the work done by the financiers on Wall Street. It’s a curious choice, and no, it doesn’t work. It also means none of the movie’s second half has the energy of the pre-crash years, which has less to do with the recession and more to do with the absence of Cardi B from the film.

The girls sitting behind me at the opening-night showing I went to complained at some length about why Ms. Reinhart and Cardi B could not have swapped parts. In many ways, they were right – Cardi B is a natural, hilarious performer, with the charisma to match J.Lo herself in a lap-dancing scene, and who will undoubtedly use this part as a springboard to whatever she wants. But the gang of hustlers needed a white girl. It’s never said out loud, but the characters all know and the subtext is obviously there, not least when their marks blanch as Annabelle cheerfully introduces her sisters as they surround him in a bar. It's also an interesting choice for the movie to make, to make race both highly visible (the wider cast is unusually diverse both in skin tone and body shape) and invisible (the discussion that leads to the shot of Ms. Reinhart biting her thumb as shown on the poster is as much as the movie gets into race, which is not terribly realistic).

But as the pace slows, the tone sours, and the pressure piles up on Destiny’s shoulders, there’s a clever long-take sequence of Destiny having a horrendous night followed by the school run in bloodstained clothes. It’s a homage to the gangster lifestyle as depicted onscreen, except Destiny is doing it without a cocaine haze or the Rolling Stones, and there are no guns in the movie. Ms. Wu is very good as the group’s C. F. O. but she never loses her discomfort at the more sexualized scenes, which means Destiny never packs a punch equal to Ramona’s. Combined with the problems of pacing the resulting power imbalance spoils the movie’s impact.

But not completely. What does work are the costumes by Mitchell Travers, who manages to give each actress a complete and changing personality through their clothes, and the production design by Jane Musky, who clearly knows New York City top to bottom. The final major sequence plays out to “Royals” by Lorde (the music video of which debuted the day the sequence is set, on May 12, 2013) and charm and good music can get you a very long way. But it's worth emphasizing the comparisons being made of “Hustlers” to various gangster movies are offensive. These women are a family, sure, but they are not organized criminals. They use no weapons other than their bodies (and some drugs) and they have no backup other than each other. Of course, for the men they hurt their bodies were the only weapons they needed. Ramona’s introduction does most of the work, but it’s not enough to carry the movie. After all there’s always a third component with the drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

P.S. The movie contains the second-best Usher film cameo of all time, which is worth sitting through the credits for.

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