Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 4, 2019)
In May 2019, Universal released The Hustle, a film about female con artists.
In September 2019, Universal released Hustlers, a film about female con artists.
Didn’t anyone at the studio think that maybe one of them needed a different title?
That said, potential audience confusion didn’t seem to hurt Hustlers. With a fairly low $20 million budget, the movie made $150 million worldwide – pretty good for a drama released after summer blockbuster season.
Back in 2007, Destiny (Constance Wu) gets a gig at an upscale strip club in New York. Initially she struggles to succeed, but when veteran dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) tutors her, Destiny starts to earn big bucks.
Alas, when the economy craters in autumn 2008, all the Wall Street sorts who threw cash and Destiny and the others shrivel up, and the strippers find themselves on hard times. After a break from the job to have a child, Destiny returns to exotic dancing and finds a new world, as there’s less money and tougher competition from Russians willing to offer sexual favors to clients for money.
Destiny reconnects with Ramona, who found a new way to churn money out of the remaining wealthy patrons. Along with partners Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Ramona seduces men at bars, gets them drunk and “borrows” their credit card numbers. Destiny soon joins this plan and finds a slew of challenges along the way.
If I wanted to go the pithy and snarky route, I’d write a three-word review of Hustlers: “GoodFellas With Strippers”.
The newer film doesn’t offer a perfect parallel for Scorsese’s 1990 classic, but the two come awfully close for comfort. At least writer/director Lorene Scafaria enjoys lots of company, as it seems like many modern movies openly ape Scorsese’s style.
Hustlers comes closer to a specific influence, though, as the GoodFellas analogy really does work fairly well. The two differ mainly on how they distribute their story points, as Act One of Hustlers compresses Acts One and Two of GoodFellas, while it stretches the 1990 movie’s third act across its second and third segments.
While I want to evaluate and appreciate Hustlers on its own merits, all those Scorsese-esque moments make that difficult. As I mentioned, plenty of other modern movies use his style – and Marty himself can sometimes veer into self-parody these days – but that doesn’t make the connections less glaring.
Like GoodFellas, Hustlers tries to get us to empathize with criminals. Though the women of Hustlers fall far short of the brutal mobsters of GoodFellas, they still commit heinous misdeeds.
Hustlers tries harder to forgive its characters for their actions, though. Scorsese never really tries to let the mobsters off the hook, but Scafaria clearly wants us to see Destiny, Ramona and the others as victims of a corrupt system, not cynical con artists.
This doesn’t work, no matter hard Scafaria attempts to paint their victims as awful people. The Wall Street schemers we find may well have been scum, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
Maybe if Hustlers tried to portray Destiny and the others as G-string-clad Robin Hoods, we might find some greater willingness to bond with them. However, they tend to throw their riches at conspicuous consumption.
Eventually it becomes really hard to see the women as morally superior to the Wall Streeters they scam. I know Scafaria wants us to view Hustlers as some kind of female empowerment tale, but I can’t figure out why we’re supposed to see these greedy, selfish women as admirable and noble.
The actors do their best with the roles, but Scafaria’s script leaves them as woefully underdeveloped. Occasionally the film tosses attempts at exposition our way, but usually we just get superficial views of the characters and their circumstances.
For the most part, Hustlers brings an entertaining tale despite its flaws. However, it can feel padded at times, as some scenes – like one about an extravagant Christmas – run too long.
All of these factors leave Hustlers as a flawed enterprise. The movie manages to keep us with it but it seems too derivative and morally off-kilter to prosper.