Friday, September 13, 2019

Heist Life: HUSTLERS

Hustlers is a crowd-pleaser with the old-fashioned charm of a good story well-told. What a pleasure to sink into a narrative for the sheer enjoyment of the one-thing-after-another pile-up of Based On a True Story incident, carried along by the compelling characters and the story’s energy and suspense, bolstered by a game ensemble of winning performers. It tells the story of a stripper (Constance Wu) who is taken under the wing of the club’s stunning, confident pro (Jennifer Lopez). They’re living the high life, raking in the big bucks at a New York City strip club frequented by Wall Street types. It’s 2007 and the market can only go up. Alas, as the recession hits and the finance money dries up, the club hits difficult times. What are these enterprising women to do? Why not scam? Lopez swaggers into the ringleader position all high-heels, tight dresses, and fur coats. She glows. With one strut onto the stage, one shrug of her coat, one spin on the pole, you can tell why her character is the one who draws the most attention, who all the other strippers are drawn to and look up to. This is a remarkable performance, poised and sexy, sly and self-aware, off-the-charts charismatic in a low-key but megawatt way. This is star power. Wu is quickly taken in with the plan. We can see why.

The movie is, beyond its surface pleasures, a fine-tuned look at the women’s friendship, an early scene of reconnection swelling with booming cornball late-aughts dance pop as their eyes meet and the plan hatches. Every step of the process is told with engaging verve through these compelling characters and the crackling screenplay’s tick-tock tightness and loose, funny chatter. The duo plan to rope in dopey high-rollers and invite them back to the club where they’ve negotiated to take a percentage of whatever they can get the guy to spend there. It’s better than stripping. All they need to do is keep the pretty ladies distracting the guy so the beer is flowing and his credit card is swiping. “He needs to be able to sign the check,” Lopez smirks as she lays out the strategy, which eventually includes secretly slipping some MDMA into the mix to keep the guy happy, and giving him a consoling pep talk if he calls back later. “You were having so much fun,” she’ll coo. Wu wonders what’ll happen if they get caught and a guy calls the cops. Lopez laughs. “And say what? I spent $5,000 at a strip club! Send help!”

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, whose Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has sweetly swooning bitter comic apocalyptic mood and The Meddler so astutely charts the relationship between a grown daughter and her lovely overbearing mother, Hustlers has a sparkle of fun over the despair at its core. It loves hanging out with its lead women, and with the crew they gather — Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and sometimes Madeline Brewer — to keep the scam rollling. They skim just enough to keep going, but never enough to get in trouble. They hope. Scafaria balances among the sheer hangout caper joy of their successes, their bubbly genuine care for each other, and the omnipresent financial despair that drives their work. Side-hustles and part-time jobs are around every corner. Apartments shift radically in size. Some days are a warm holiday of presents and dancing. Some days are spent with nasty men urging ugly awfulness into their ears. What a thrill they feel in the control over their lives, their finances, their futures.

Booming with constant well-curated pop music and sleek camera moves, floating along with propulsive editing and a melancholy past-tense structure — Wu gives an interview years later to a sympathetic reporter (Julia Stiles) to narrate some events — the movie is an excited recounting of their scheme. It grooves on the populist rage underpinning the con. Lopez chews into exposition about a taxonomy of Wall Street types, and how unfair it is that so many of them conspired to make themselves richer at everyone else’s expense, then got off without so much as a sniff of a jail sentence. The movie pushes its points forcefully — the final scene even comes right out and says the thesis the movie otherwise does a good job of embodying without doing so. But it’s just as interested in the bonds between its characters, the strain struggle puts on them, and the lengths they’ll go to stay afloat. It’s hugely entertaining, but with this undeniable sharp-edged sadness underneath.

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