“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to roofie stock brokers.” Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers doesn’t start with an explicit dialogue-riff on Goodfellas, but it may as well have. The film so clearly yearns to be a savvy fable about socioeconomic plundering, a pole-dancing-Robin-Hood legend that’s updated for the era of Bitcoin. It so very nearly is, were it not for its oddly redundant storytelling, frequent loss of focus, and rampant abuse of montages.
Based on a true story, Hustlers is a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags tale that primarily follows Destiny (Constance Wu), who starts stripping for her grandmother. Sorry, that sounded wrong. She starts stripping because her grandmother needed money. Destiny meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who takes the newcomer literally beneath her fur-coat-covered wing. This is in 2007, when the general public didn’t yet know just how much they were supposed to hate hedge fund managers and futures traders.
In a montage, Ramona trains Destiny at stripping and fleecing perverts. In another montage, Destiny and Ramona get rich. In another montage, the stock market collapses. In another montage, the strip club falls on hard times without rich dudebros who don’t know how to actually love another human. In another montage, Destiny splits with her boyfriend and is left to raise her new baby alone. She finds herself back with Ramona, who decides to start drugging men ostensibly involved in the financial collapse and running up their credit cards. Oh, that also involves a montage.
The narrative conceit is that Destiny and Ramona are retelling their story to a writer (Julia Stiles). This means that we frequently see Wu and Lopez talking about their motivations behind abusing the Mastercards of the 1%. Contrast this with something like Hell or High Water, which humanized property foreclosures without long monologues about the tyranny of financial institutions.
Because Scafaria is not a lecherous dude, the stripping sequences don’t feel heinous so much as they feel like they’re stealing time from the more interesting aspects of the film. Somewhat shockingly, Hustlers never really shows the true maniacal depravity of Ramona and Destiny’s Wall Street targets, save for a few very tiny clips in, you guessed it, a montage.
Lopez is as spectacular as advertised; Ramona is almost unbearably charismatic, compulsively motherly, and unquestionably dangerous all at once. Wu is commendably approachable as an audience surrogate, but Destiny isn’t written to have a personality so much as a series of things that have happened to her. Hustlers wants badly to also be a nuanced character study, but then kinda forgot to give its lead an actual character.
If it seems like this is all quite harsh, that’s only because Hustlers is so palpably close to greatness. It masterfully deploys a genius blend of modern pop songs and classical score. Its thesis downplays (but acknowledges) an expected sexist, rape-culture takedown in favor of elevating a class struggle argument (even if it doesn’t support that thesis well). Even its desire to essentially replicate a Scorsese film with women in every key role is long overdue. In the spirit of Hustlers, please imagine a montage of a movie reviewer typing away, tormented by a thwarted masterpiece.
Grade = B-