The vision of a movie like “Hustlers” connotates something epic, the essence of bad ass criminals making their time. But there is less glee in “Hustlers” and more pontification. Even in the superior “The Kitchen”, the girls look like they are having fun until they are not. The texture of “Hustlers” is in many ways lacks this because the film feels at times flat and the strippers in many ways are acting more like, well, actors. Jennifer Lopez sells her role as the stripper with an angle to take what she wants but one never gets past the idea that she is a music star playing a stripper. For all her ad-libbing (which is mostly random), Carli B seems much more genuine despite the fact that she doesn’t seem controlled in any way in the one scene she is in.
Constance Wu as Destiny seems to be living and acting in another movie. She is hustling to pay the bills to help support her grandmother, but there is no sense why or how she got to this point. The movie is lacking, along with more than passing degree of style, a backstory for many of the characters. Even the woman (Julia Stiles in a thankless role) who is interviewing Destiny [Lu] doesn’t speak to who she works for. The movie takes place a void in many ways. The story is set during the time of the housing crisis and the movie is based on an article about apparently how the strippers from Scores in NYC started hustling their marks by feeding them drugs and then shanghaiing their credit cards.
The movie could have had a “Boogie Nights” sensibility but didn’t quite get there or really at all. There is only one shot that truly feels cool in the whole movie which is a walking shot on a NY city street with Lopez set to Lorde’s “Royals” because it truly captures the themes and the world in a small way. STX took over releasing “Hustlers” from Annapurna who made the film. Annapurna made the exceptional movies “Booksmart” and “Where’d You Go Bernadette” this year but they must have known they had a critical stinker on their hands because they dropped this movie.
Lopez is the most edgy she has been in a while but sometimes she is acting and sometimes she is simply playing the bling of it without context. Even “Shades Of Blue” on NBC, her character had a heavy degree of context but I guess it also has to do with sparring partners. In “The Kitchen”, the girls were all different but there was a sense of belonging even in morally questionable situations. Here it seems, even though they shot the film in 29 days, that they spent too much time on some things and not on others. Also, not that it needs to be there, but the deliberate keeping of all the actress from stripping at least to a certain point gives the movie a lack of authenticity. Again Cardi B is the only one who gets close save for JLo’s opening dance number which is suitably impressive and shows her control of her presence but that is not enough to sustain the movie.
Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty on “Riverdale” on the CW, looks like a deer lost in headlights and grossly miscast. Her handlers might have told her it would be a good career move but it backfired because without a better script and a more nuanced director, the film just flails and never feels either truly cool or tragic. Her character is supposed to be a lost puppy who gets pulled in but she does not fill the role at all (despite how good she can be on “Riverdale”). The use of music overall also doesn’t stand out, except for the aforementioned Lorde song, which seemed out of place in the movie but truly belonged. Even some of the JLo’s older songs would have least added a degree of meta to it. All in, “Hustlers” is a misfire that had a great premise but not the follow through needed on the cylinders provided.
By Tim Wassberg