There are few kinds of movies as satisfying as well-executed heist films in which the thieves in question rob from someone totally deserving of it. We get to combine the thrills of the high-stakes theft with the moral pleasure of seeing someone who deserves nothing lose everything. Hustlers, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, initially sees itself as one of these righteous heist movies, before unconvincingly attempting to become something more interesting and complex toward the end. Instead, it winds up just a shallow collection of slow-motion shots of beautiful women walking toward the camera.
Hustlers begins around 2007 when Wall Street is riding high ahead of the impending collapse of the global financial markets. Constance Wu plays Dorothy, an exotic dancer who has just started at an upscale strip club in New York City, where she’s looking to up what she’d been earning at smaller clubs. But Dorothy doesn’t have the experience to put on the kind of dances that earn the most tips, and she’s timid and uncomfortable with her customers in the private rooms.
Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), one of the more experienced dancers and a high earner, takes Dorothy under her wing and helps perfect her technique. But the increased cash doesn’t do anything to help her deal with the swarms of misogynistic customers and harassers who torment her at work, nor the men behind the scenes who demand a cut of her pay at every step. Once the markets crash, Dorothy’s wealthy clients drop out, and she stops stripping for a time; eventually she’s lured back and reunites with Ramona, who cooks up a scheme to bring added security to both their families: they’ll drug high rollers with a mixture of ketamine (to sedate them and prevent them from remembering anything) and MDMA (to ensure they have a good time throughout the process), then max out their credit cards for as much as they’re worth. Scafaria portrays this shift as a feminist victory for Dorothy, Ramona, and the other dancers they let in on the play — they’re never photographed as glamorously as they are when they’re taking some Wall Street bro for everything he’s worth.
But in Hustlers, the real benefit isn’t in standing up for themselves for striking back at the dudes who make them miserable — it’s making money, and lots of it. We see Dorothy and Ramona treat themselves to shopping sprees and share the riches with their friends. As the film enters its last third, however, it tries to introduce a note of ambiguity. The operation seems to fall apart as the women scam a guy (played by Steven Boyer) who wasn’t all that into it in the first place, and isn’t wealthy like their usual clients. After they max out his corporate credit card he loses his job, and he’s left with nothing to pay his family’s mortgage after they bleed him dry. Scafaria suddenly turns a moralizing eye on the women after celebrating them only a few minutes earlier. In fact, a man nearly dies after jumping off the roof of his house while high on their concoction, but it’s merely treated for laughs. Rather than examining the culpability of her characters (and their marks) in a nuanced fashion, Scafaria whipsaws between empowerment cheerleading and moralizing, without ever taking a definitive stance. Hustlers wants points from the audience for its girl-power statement, but it ultimately rings hollow.
Still, the film is blessed with a fine performance from Jennifer Lopez, who is charming and a totally believable Mephistopheles. Constance Wu is more opaque; despite latter-day scenes of her being interviewed for the New York Magazine that later became a sensation, and humanizing moments in which she scares for her mother, we never quite get in her head. There are plenty of attempts to develop her character, but it doesn’t reveal much about what makes her tick. The flatness of her lead performance isn’t helped by the flatness of the movie’s visuals. Scafaria and the cinematographer, Todd Banhazi, apply a blown-out silvery sheen to the entire film that deadens the colors of the strip club while also accentuating the drabness of outside life. It’s an attempt at being slick and cool which instead comes off as tedious.
Hustlers doesn’t have much of interest to say about its characters or the wider financial structures that give them an incentive to steal from wealthy men. Some reviewers have compared the film to Martin Scorsese’s work, but Scafaria has little of his style, and her film lacks the social critique built into films like The Wolf of Wall Street or Casino. It’s spectacle as transparent and empty as a diamond.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15