The “Hustlers” Hustle
written and directed by Lorene Scafaria
acted by Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B, Madeline Brewer, Trace Lysette, Mette Towley
produced by Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, Jessica Elbaum, Jennifer Lopez, Benny Medina, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
distributed by STX Entertainment
MPAA-rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.
running time: 110 minutes
by Bill Stamets
New York City predators enjoy the company of their own kind in “Hustlers.” Promoted as a “comedy-drama,” this business saga backfires as a condescending satire of excuses that exotic dancers make for drugging Wall Street execs and maxing out their credit cards. I admit my take could be idiosyncratic: no one else at the preview screening laughed at lines I did.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria opens with Destiny (Constance Wu, “Crazy Rich Asians,” ABC-TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) looking into a mirror. She’s backstage at a “strip club” where no one is seen stripping. The MPAA rates “Hustlers” R “for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.” Only background players with no lines appear topless. Establishments of this sort are also called “gentlemen’s clubs” to stroke customers tossing cash at gyrating women in g-strings.
On the club sound system Janet Jackson speaks her intro to the song “Control”: “This is a story about control, my control/ Control of what I say, control of what I do/ And this time I’m gonna do it my way/ I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.” Fantasy framing segues into bombast usually heard in a boxing ring or wrestling arena. It’s time for “round one” so “make some noise for the new girl!” booms he club announcer, after informing the crowd, “We’re now accepting all major cards.” Destiny debuts. At the very end of the film it’s: “Time to go home gentlemen.”
The club’s longtime top-earner Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) mentors newcomer Destiny: “This game is rigged and it does not reward people who play by the rules. Stand in the corner or get in the ring.” Ramona strategizes: “We’ve got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody… When they come into club, that’s stolen money. That’s what’s paying for their blow jobs. The fucking fire department’s retirement fund. Fuck these guys.” Figuratively, that is.
Scafaria takes Ramona’s side. “Hustlers”– to borrow words from its publicity material– entertains the bare minimum of skepticism about Ramona’s “ethically questionable tactics” as she targets “Wall Street kingpins” who treat her and Destiny as “playthings.”
Recruiting Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the sisterly crew launches a start-up in the service economy of after-hours Wall Street. Profile men in upscale bars to pick up and take to private backrooms at clubs. Stupefy prey with a dose of custom-blended MDMA and ketamine. Get pin numbers, passwords and even mothers’ maiden names. Bleed credit cards. Give a cut to the club. Victimlessly, insist the hustlers.
“They’d do this anyway,” rationalizes Ramona, when Destiny admits her doubts. “We’re just helping them do it. Nobody gets hurt.” She sees the big picture: “But everybody’s hustling. This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”
The filmmaker and her corporate backers are on the same page. STX Entertainment press notes relate: “Scafaria interjects that she includes herself in that category of ‘hustler.’ `I know what it’s like to hustle – to “dance” for the money to make these movies!’ she says, with a laugh.”
Ramona schools Destiny: “You’re just another deal to them and that’s all they are to you. It’s business and it’s a more honest transaction than anything else they did that day.” Buying into that ethos pays off. Destiny boasts “I made more money that year than a goddam brain surgeon.” and “I was CFO of my own fucking corporation.” The foursome celebrate their success: “We are a family now. A family with money!”
Deploying phrases from feminist theory, STX Entertainment places “the ladies” in “a broken system that has left them at the bottom of a patriarchal hierarchy that’s been in place since, well, forever.” The press notes add: “Constance Wu enthuses, ‘Because it wasn’t about the male gaze; it wasn’t about any gaze at all.” Yet costume designer Mitchell Travers makes a distinction: “the dancers’ wardrobe… was all about `the difference between the way women dress for each other, and the way they dress for the male gaze.’”
“Hustlers” is partly pitched as “social commentary.” Irony-free, a capitalist manufacturer of mass escapism, STX Entertainment, tells us, “these tycoons have long been making money off the broken dreams of everyday Americans, and, the ladies’ reason, it’s time to turn things around.” Lopez’s spin: “It’s an amorality story about the slippery slope of the hustle… It’s about right, wrong, and how far you’ll go to hustle for your dreams.”
Scafaria’s you-go-girl biz biopic defaults to the plot cliché of flash-forwards of Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) interviewing Destiny and Ramona for a magazine article. The audience is tipped off onscreen: “Inspired by a true story.” Specifics come in the end credits, sporting irregular capitalizations like Trump tweets: “Inspired by the Article Published by New York Magazine entitled `The Hustlers at Scores.’”
The resulting film “Hustlers” lacks the criminal mechanics, sociological detail and economic context of such recent films as the insider-angled “The Big Short.” Adam McKay directed that 2015 drama based on a 2010 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis. McKay then produced “Molly’s Game” in 2017, which is based on the 2014 memoir “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World.” Along with Lopez, he is a producer of “Hustlers.”
For realism Scafaria brought on both a Stripper Consultant and a Wall Street Consultant, and shot inside Show Palace, “New York’s #1 All Nude Gentleman’s Club.” Production designer Jane Musk must have gotten it right. “The club’s owner was so pleased with the changes, that he retained them after filming had wrapped at the site,” report the press notes. Plugging its “newly renovated space,” the web site of the Long Island City club says, “Show Palace’s majestic chandeliers, bronze railings, plush carpeting, and granite accents add to its atmosphere of grandeur.” New talent is welcome. “No experience? No problem!… Make $500-$1000 a shift (no kidding)… XXX Porn stars who have graced our stages include… STORMY DANIELS.” The New York Daily News reported on January 20, 2018: “Queens jiggle joint has been shuttered amid allegations of prostitution.”
To enhance pre-screening ambiance at the AMC River East 21, fake five dollar bills littered the hallway carpet where “Hustlers” invitees had posed for photos as if they were strippers showered with cash. Inside there was a pole by the screen, courtesy of a local business: “Fempress Fit is a pole dance, aerial, and fitness studio in Chicago with a variety of classes that emphasize the necessity of sisterhood and fun… We use movement to connect in a feminine, fit, fun, feisty way with the Empress inside all of us,” hypes its internet site. Besides the usual yoga and Pilates, classes include “pole fitness” and “sensual pole.” No stripping transpired before the lights came down. Nor after, as far as I could see.
Realist touches on the screen include a phone call between Destiny and Elizabeth wherein the last name of one of the hustled is beeped out twice. Earlier in the film, following two close-ups of a tape recorder, Destiny orders Elizabeth to turn it off. The sound abruptly drops out for rest of that scene. Another nice choice is ten selections of piano music by Frédéric Chopin that strike my ear as aptly tacky– classy tinkly and faux deluxe– in a Liberace way.
Dialogue on the soundtrack is pseudo-deep whenever characters moralize and psychologize. The one-liners employ similar lightweight wordplay. After the film’s equivalent of “The Hustlers at Scores” is published, Destiny phones Elizabeth: “So I was just reading the article again and maybe the reason why we did what we did was because hurt people hurt people.” That’s also what Greta Gerwig’s character says in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film ‘’Greenberg.”
“Hurt people hurt people” is traced to a 1957 column in the Amarillo Globe-Times. An elementary school principal said it at a parents meeting. In 1971 the same columnist who quoted the educator ran another turn of phrase by him: “Sometimes a man doesn’t want his way– he just wants his say.”
The four-word truism is found in a second-hand Oprah tweet and a song by Two Feat. It occurs in the titles of studies on female bullying and post traumatic stress disorder. It’s invoked in “Bullying and Being Bullied: To What Extent Are Bullies Also Victims?” Jessica Pressler, who wrote the “inspired by” source article in New York Magazine, reports Roselyn Keo, the woman who inspired Destiny’s character, was enrolled in an Introduction to Psychology course when hustling.
The producers of “Hustlers” thank Keo and her co-hustler Karina Pascucci in the end credits. “Pascucci is working on her associate’s degree in criminal psychology,” reported ABC-TV on the day “Hustlers” opened. The banner “The Hustlers” aired and streamer with all the “Hustler”-related segments the company broadcast on Good Morning America, 20/20 and Nightline.
Samantha Barbash, the hustler inspiring the character played by Lopez, is not thanked by STX Entertainment. She declined an interview with ABC but asked them to tell Keo: “Make the money, don’t let the money make you.” Echoing passages in the script, the press notes repeat the phrasing style: “Destiny’s most important lesson is… you must hustle or be hustled.”
On April 3, 2019 Barbash complained about Lopez to the New York Post: “It’s my story she’s making money off of… If she wants to play me, then she should have gotten the real story… They’re going off a false story… This is a living nightmare so now I’m going to have to do a lawsuit. I’m getting a gag order.”
Irony is not a thing in “Hustlers.” Here’s another one it omits. The year before Pressler wrote “The Hustlers at Scores” for New York Magazine, she contributed the 12th best in the magazine’s list of “Reasons to Love New York” issue: “Because a Stuyvesant Senior Made $72 Million Trading Stocks on His Lunch Break.” Afterwards the Huffington Post posted: “Bloomberg News rescinded a job offer this week to New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler after her profile of a teenage stock-picking multi-millionaire proved to be a hoax… The student had lied about making tens of millions of dollars on Wall Street.”
Destiny tells Elizabeth in their third interview: “You don’t have to believe me. I’m used to people not believing me.” That scene could be inspired by this parenthetical aside in Pressler’s original December 28, 2015 article: “(I say `according to Rosie’… because Rosie is an admitted liar with multiple pending felony charges. Still, she is occasionally prone to offering up indisputable truths. `American culture is a little fucked up,’ she mused. `You know?’)”
Hustlers always hustling. That’s an excuse, not a critique, in “Hustlers.”
©2019 Bill Stamets