Comparisons of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers to the fact-based crime sagas by Martin Scorsese are...let's be nice and say “unfounded.”
Though similar on paper to the likes of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of former strippers who drug and rob wealthy men lacks the narrative and technical acumen to warrant such equivalencies, and is further undone by poor performances rooted in rampant miscasting.
Perfectly fine in Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu carries that frothy role’s sweet innocence to central character Destiny — an ill-fitting choice for someone who enacts a range of dirty deeds with little to no remorse. Never convincing as a stripper — even a cliché one with a heart of gold — or really even as a person, she’s a constant enigma, the victim of lazy writing and direction and finds minimal help from her supporting cast.
Chief among these accomplices is Jennifer Lopez in textbook unappealing sexpot mode as Ramona, the queen bee on whom Destiny mysteriously (and kind of creepily) latches herself. Painfully lacking chemistry, the duo sleepwalk through awkward strip club scenes and familiar rags-to-riches sprees that are barely entertaining and repel any form of emotional connection to the characters.
Based on the New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Scafaria’s script offers paltry insight about the core players and their pasts (or presents), making it difficult to believe and invest in their journeys once the 2008 financial crisis puts an end to their flashy lifestyles.
Such attachment is necessary to buy into the risky yet profitable steps that Destiny and Ramona take upon reuniting three years later, and, consistent with the absence of thoughtful characterization, the presentation of the con’s genesis is sloppy and its execution is full of more gaps than the London Underground.
To say Hustlers has structural issues would be generous, and while the choppy narrative might seemingly be helped by pleasant distractions from the time-hop framing — including Destiny’s interview with a sadly flat Julia Stiles as a Pressler stand-in named Elizabeth — the disjointedness makes for a long sit.
That’s a shame, seeing as it’s generally a good-looking film. Far from creatively anonymous, Scafaria’s follow-up to The Meddler is full of crisp visuals, though her reliance on slow zoom-ins quickly grows tiresome, plus she uses up the rest of the 2019 release slate’s quota for slo-mo.
Rather than take the time to develop a meaningful work of cinema, Scafaria is more invested in window dressing like Cardi B, Lizzo, and Usher cameos, yet after working at odds for a good 90 minutes, her direction and writing finally mesh in the inevitable comeuppance montage, where it still feels like a Scorsese knockoff, albeit a competent one. Reminiscent of better films like Pain & Gain and I, Tonya, this stretch packs a long-teased energy and wit — that promptly disappears as quickly as it arrived.
Grade: C-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: STX Films)