‘Hustling’ to the front of the Oscar race

Images courtesy STX Entertainment.

8/10 It takes a lot for me, someone who literally likes the sound of my own voice, to think my take on a movie won’t be valuable. One of the fun things about being a white man is just about every piece of mass media is for me to some degree, to such an extent that they need to be explicitly aimed away to seem like they’re not for me, and that’s why I was planning to skip Hustlers. It positioned itself as a standard girls’ night out movie that might offer some excuses to say mean things about Jennifer Lopez, and I don’t want to do that.

Then it blew the doors off at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, rocketing up to 88% on Rotten Tomatoes (now 87%) ahead of its already-scheduled release, a reception that pumped its opening weekend revenue to $33.2 million, a stunning take for this genre. That prompted me to do a little digging and find there’s much more to Hustlers than a shitty title, pleather feminism and Cardi B music.

New York City, 2007- Dorothy (Constance Wu), stagename Destiny, needing to take care of her grandmother and with no high school diploma, goes to the big city to shake it. She’s taken under the wing of Ramona Vega (Lopez, who also produces), who teaches her how to milk to Wall Street clientele for all they’re worth, but after the 2008 financial crisis, their well of customers runs dry. The two turn to increasingly desperate measures to drum up business, first merely going to bars and “fishing” for lonely, still-wealthy men who were already drunk enough to be coaxed to the club. When that proves unreliable, they begin drugging their marks with a mix of ketamine and MDMA.

The strippers’ real names have been changed, though I’m not sure why. Dorothy and Vega are based on Roselyn Keo and Samantha Barbash, stagename Samantha Foxx, who were the subject of the spectacular 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, who is herself renamed Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) for the film. 

What got me interested in Hustlers was the notion of it as a period piece – not just another one of the self-serious female-driven revenge dramas that have been rolling through theaters with little impact in recent years, but a specific retrospective on the short-term thinking that crippled the country, Christ, 10 years ago now – but it isn’t much of a period piece. There’s one great scene that intercuts the strippers’ nighttime theft of financial executives with the financial executives’ daytime jobs of presumably robbing America blind, but that’s limited to one sequence.

This early scene, after Vega’s big dance, is where Hustlers solidifies itself as something really memorable from a lighting and costume design standpoint. There’s a lot of technical awards this movie could make a strong case for.

Hustlers may not be the period piece I wanted, but what I got is a special film. The lighting, sound and costume design are all masterful. Kayla Emter’s editing is crisp and incisive – I singled out the intercutting scene earlier as a sadly limited example of how the film binds itself to its setting, but there are tons of other examples of similarly creative editing making different points.

The highlight and major talking point is the acting. Most of the buzz is around Lopez specifically, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria draws fantastic, pointedly physical performances from the entire cast. Stripping itself plays only a small role in the film, but the seduction extends much further than that – it’s those sexy walks and looks and laughs that are just a little too perfectly rehearsed, hiding their predatory intent so well that they end up revealing it.

While the entire cast is stellar, Lopez fully deserves to be singled out. She’s an absolute force in dialogue scenes, and her stunningly well-staged dance near the beginning, which she trained for months to perform, is the film’s technical highlight.

What makes Hustlers really stand out artistically, though, is its spectacular visual creativity. Every shot is intentional and seems to have had a great deal of attention put into it. Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazi hone in quickly and frequently on the story’s most brutal details, making everything about this as cinematic as it can be. It’s full of low-key one-takes that impress the full weight of various situations, undermining the airs that characters are trying to put on.

What makes this visual panache so much more remarkable is how faithful Hustlers is to the article it’s based on. Where almost all movies that are “based on a true story” are heavily altered, Scafaria barely seems to have set her hand on the screenplay at all – almost every scene in the article is transplanted directly onto the screen, and scenes in the movie that aren’t in the article word-for-word are at least alluded to.

It’s weirdly accurate in other ways, too. Hustlers doesn’t just take scenes, it takes what makes “The Hustlers at Scores” an outstanding article and translates those merits onto film. For example, the article makes use of subtle doubling – at one point, Barbash emphasizes that $100,000 is “nothing” to the people they’re stealing from, but later, Keo remarks about one of their victims that his $17,000 wasn’t much to them, but it meant a great deal to him. The article doesn’t highlight this shift. It’s in there subtly, along with a few other instances of the same technique.

In the film, Scafaria lifts these lines, but also applies the same echoing technique to her film language. These lines have obvious use as bookends for the thieving phase of Dorothy’s life, but the repetition serves other purposes – there’s a shot in the trailer when Vega closes the golden curtains to the club’s exclusive room, which is used to end her explanation of how to make the big bucks. About 20 minutes later in movie time, after the economic collapse, there’s a mirror shot of her opening the same curtains, symbolic of her bursting out of the club itself and toward her criminal scheme.

There’s other examples of this technique being appropriated, and there are other examples of other great things about the article that get translated as well. Scafaria may be credited with the screenplay, but she’s mostly filming someone else’s work here, and demonstrating incredible mastery of her craft in the process, taking anything and everything she’s given and putting it to evocative and technically sound life.

Cardi B and Lizzo, who cameo as Dorothy’s coworkers, don’t add much of anything to the movie and seem to only be there as marketing props, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. They each bring a degree of baggage to the project — Cardi B spent years as a professional stripper as a route to escape domestic violence, even recently stating that she stole from clients while she was doing it, and a lot of Lizzo’s recent fame has to do with pushing body positivity. At least neither of them does what they call “singing.”

The original article is so integral to the movie, in fact, that the worst parts of Hustlers are some of its changes. Motherhood is introduced as a theme in a way that works fine but doesn’t compliment the rest of the story. The intent seems to be to make Dorothy and Vega more sympathetic than Keo and Barbash, which would fit with the way the story’s ending is altered, but this pulls the movie’s overarching punch and leaves the article’s climactic moment on the table.

That’s what’s really missing from Hustlers, is a narrative build. With Vega’s dance standing as the high point at around 20 minutes in, the film starts to drag, even at just 110 minutes. After the biggest scenes, it develops into a story that has simply been told before, just with a glossy coat of semi-feminist paint that doesn’t disguise it at all. 

STX Entertainment is putting a lot of chips behind Hustlers as its flagship release for the year. Between that and its sudden pedigree, we can expect to hear a lot of Oscar talk surrounding it in the coming months. It’s definitely worth a watch, so catch it now before the season really gets underway. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘Hustling’ to the front of the Oscar race

  1. Pingback: ‘Goldfinch’ bums viewers, bombs at box office | Reel Entropy

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