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Blu-ray Review: Hustlers

December 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

One of the most surprising things to happen this year at TIFF was the amount of praise that Hustlers received following its gala premiere. I saw the film about a week before the festival and thought it was a mildly entertaining but thoroughly unremarkable piece of disposable entertainment.

I moved on from it rather quickly, to be perfectly honest, banking a middling review to be published after the embargo date and not really thinking about it much beyond that. So I was genuinely surprised when the film premiered to mostly rave reviews and a semi-serious campaign to get Jennifer Lopez, who is fine here but not exactly Oscar-worthy, a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Based on a true story that was documented in a 2015 article published in New York magazine, Hustlers centres around Destiny (Constance Wu), a young stripper in New York City who becomes the protege of Ramona (Lopez), the de facto queen of the strip club. When the club starts losing business during the 2008 recession, Ramona hatches a plan to make money by drugging their rich Wall Street clients and stealing and maxing out their credit cards. Destiny gets roped in to Ramona’s scheme, but they can only live large for so long before getting the attention of the feds.

Directed by Lorene Scafaria, following up her wonderful dramedy The Meddler which premiered at TIFF back in 2015, Hustlers is the filmmaker’s glossiest and most mainstream movie yet. The film is mildly enjoyable to watch at times, anchored by a pair of decent performances from Wu and Lopez, and it’s set to a solid soundtrack of pop songs. But it’s also inconsistent, overlong, and tonally confused. While it’s understandable why the film would have a certain level of sympathy for some of these characters, at times it feels like a straight up glorification of their behaviour, an approach that feels problematic.

For the most part, Scafaria’s screenplay takes a fairly simplistic approach to telling a story that needed a good deal more nuance. The characters lack necessary depth, and should have been presented more in shades of grey, with their crimes instead being retooled into a sort of quasi empowerment fable in a way that didn’t really work for me. While some of the money they steal is going to supporting themselves and their families, they are also using it to fund their lavish, consumerist lifestyles, which doesn’t exactly make them heroes. The film often seems to be making light of them drugging and robbing people, something that Cardi B, who has a small supporting role here, has bragged about doing in real life.

This is a somewhat serious true story, and yet the film aims to be more frothy entertainment than gritty crime drama, with an at times awkward tone that mixes campiness, more sitcomish humour, and darker moments. Cinematographer Todd Benhazi brings some vibrancy to the strip club scenes, but the rest of the film has a flat, grey scale colour grade that gives it the look of a TV movie. The film’s pacing also feels off at times, with some details and characters being glossed over and other scenes that go on much too long, including an extended sequence set at Christmas that feels like a detour from the rest of the movie and throws off any sense of momentum or suspense.

While Hustlers tries hard to be Scorsese, it’s no Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street, and is ultimately an okay but forgettable piece of pop entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t discourage any curious first time viewers from checking it out on Blu-ray, and the film has attracted a dedicated fan base that you might very well find yourself a part of, but this is also a flawed work that feels like it is being oversold. For my money, Hustlers is a mediocre film that has been overhyped as something more than it is.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track by Scafaria, as well as a digital copy of the film.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Hustlers is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 110 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 10th, 2019

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