' ' Cinema Romantico: Hustlers

Monday, September 23, 2019


Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 article for New York Magazine, “Hustlers” frames its story through a fictional reporter, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), interviewing Destiny, née Dorothy (Constance Wu), an adult dancer turned hustler, one eventually busted for drugging and bilking scads of Wall Street fat cats, the oversized bracelets adorning each of Dorothy’s wrists clinking together throughout this discussion like hand irons. Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria seems to frame this story through Dorothy, caring for an ailing grandmother and eventually a daughter, because she’s the one who shows trepidation and then remorse. If she’s presented as the main character, however, Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona, mentor to Dorothy’s protégé, and mastermind of the hustling scam, ultimately emerges as Scafaria’s true spirit animal, remorseless and insistent. Indeed, if Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are co-producers, so too were they on “The Big Short”, and if that movie showed who and what led to the 2008 Financial Crisis then “Hustlers” is not so much an answer to “The Big Short” as a middle finger – two of them, in fact, tossed by Ramona toward the end as a summation of their attitude toward the system. Why in the distance, if you strain your ears, you might be able to hear a certain sort of male lament her filthy, nasty mouth.

“Hustlers” begins by dropping a conspicuous beat, Janet Jackson’s “Control”, where she declares: “This is story about control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do.” Scafaria takes that as a mantra, opening with a tracking shot following Dorothy out of her strip club dressing room and across the stage, the camera sticking close to her side so that we only see the endless male denizens from her point-of-view rather than the other way around, a reclamation of the adult dancer’s perspective. When Ramona gets her show-stopping dance, one of those transcendent moments when the movie and movie stardom blur and the joy of Ramona and the joy of Lopez performing as Ramona merge, we see it through Dorothy’s eyes, less about the arousal of so many moronic males than Dorothy’s awakening. And as Ramona writhes in a sea of cash onstage, well, if the notion of money as both seductive and perverted is not be new, it has rarely been rendered with such a sizzling pulse.

That’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The next scene finds Ramona in repose on the club’s roof, draped in fur and smoking a cigarette, a shot worthy of royalty even if it’s simultaneously aware this is no throne room and she’s forced to sneak smokes; she might lord over the room but she’s still labor. Before long, Ramona has brought Dorothy into the fold, showing not simply how to dance but how to manipulate men, coaching her on the various Wall Street types, a wry spin on one of the plentiful How-To scenes of “Casino.” These are the men who made the Financial Crisis, and if they are screwing us then Ramona and Destiny are screwing them, so to speak, the kind of comeuppance that feels like avenging voyeurism and makes them easy to root for even if they graduate to full-fledged crime after the American economy goes belly up.

Ramona and Destiny form a band of robbers with fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), luring an endlessly recharging series of faceless white men, all different yet somehow the same, bred on bro code, as if we are seeing those raucous “Wolf on Wall Street” party scenes flipped, spiking their drinks to make them woozy and then stealing their credit card information. The scheme itself is fairly simple and Scafaria doesn’t linger on it overmuch to emphasize the laughable ease of roping in entitled dudes, illustrating “a universal law of human nature,” as the late Roger Ebert wrote, “which is that every man, no matter how resistible, believes that when a woman in a low-cut dress tells him such things she must certainly be saying the truth.”

Dorothy’s grandmother and daughter, however, as well as Ramona’s daughter, feel superfluous in this context, less motivations for these women than the burning desire to get one over on the system seeing them merely as objects. That’s also why Scafaria’s script eschews examining the darker realities of such criminal activity, emblemized in Annabelle’s penchant for vomiting when things get too real, a comic counterpoint deliberately offsetting the tension. So do the montages of these Hustlers in action, which Scafaria leans on so heavily as her film progresses that true character development falls by the wayside and a repetitiveness sets in, not that these are bad things, the image of Jennifer Lopez swaggering in slow-motion again and again more than enough, a reminder of that motion pictures are, like, you know, about moving images, and seeing JLo simply move across screen brings her immense star power to the forefront; behold.

There is a shot near the end of Ramona on a city sidewalk where the angle – from the side, looking through pedestrians – and the lighting – suddenly seeming to skew natural – feels like one of those streetscapes of a 1970s drama. It’s gone in a flash, though, and with it any sense of rough edges, all sanded off, the movie tendering its characters forgiveness before they’ve even asked for it. After all, if the system doesn’t provide a happy ending then you have to fashion one for yourself.

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