Directed by Lorene Scafaria
At the end of the day Hustlers is basically a McMovie.
Yeah ok at the start it seems like it has the potential to be a lot more. There’s the single take tracking shot that follows Constance Wu as she moves from the dressing room to the stage that very much intentionally brings to mind that shot from Goodfellas. The way that the first 20 minutes just shows you Destiny’s life is really well done. The emotional labour of a typical night. Doing it for her grandma. Trying to fit in. The camaraderie between the women. The way that every guy takes his cut with a smile on his face like they’re doing her a favour. Yeah – you know: this is all good stuff. And kinda built up this expectation that I was about to watch something special. It made me feel like I was watching a movie that had big things on it’s mind – that was interested in exploring the ways that our system dehumanises us. In the ways that sexuality is transformed into a commodity and the ways in which that damages everyone involved. And – I don’t know – maybe even something along the lines of how that affects personal relationships too. How does someone else see you when you make a living by being sexual to other people? How does your family see? How do you see yourself? What choices does it give you? And what choices does it take away?
You know… stuff like that.
And you know even when Jennifer Lopez shows up and then the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 happens and their Get Rich Scheme gets hatched I was nodding my head in appreciation. Feeling like I’d discovered something valuable in a mainstream that seemed like it had collapsed in on itself and had nothing more to offer than empty calories trumpeting the value of success and narcissistic affirmation. Like showing how people’s lives were damaged / destroyed by Financial Crisis seems like a very good starting point for a movie especially as seen through the eyes of people who have already been turned into commodities. And then seeing them struggling to deal with the fall-out of that is good stuff. There’s a cool bit when Constance Wu calls up one of the guys she used to know and you watch him walking through this huge house to find a place where his wife can’t hear him (toilet next to the underground swimming pool obviously). And you know – you can feel how shit Constance Wu feels in that she’s been reduced to this and you can feel how sleazy and shit the guy feels too. And I don’t know – I kinda feel like movies are good when they do stuff like that. Showing you the humanity of everyone and tightening the screws on your emotions.
And yeah even when the Get Rich Scheme is hatched and put into practice I was still onboard with things. In fact I thought it was kinda beautiful and elegant in terms of what it shows you – in a system where everyone is sinking and only the rich survive of course there’s no other option but to go shark and play the zero sum game. These men have sunk the country and got away scott free so of course the only option Constance Wu has is playing by their game – treating people as things. Everyone needs to eat right? And money doesn’t come for free.
But then that’s kinda the point where the movie lost me and instead of it being an cold-hearted examination of the ways in which – well – money fucks you up or whatever it just becomes… a celebration of success and narcissistic affirmation (ha! Surprise!). So you know – lots of scenes of the victors enjoying their spoils and fur coats and looking fabulous. Which yeah ok if that’s what gets you off. But also you know – kinda boring.
And yet but still – kinda fascinating in the way in which a film which starts off acting like it’s going to be a damning indictment of our 21st Century Neoliberal Capitalist system ends up (of course) becoming an endorsement of it. And yeah of course no one goes to the movies to have a shit time and at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (my default setting obviously) it kinda feels like watching images of rich people enjoying being fabulous is maybe part of the problem perhaps?
Like I said right at the start Goodfellas is obviously a major touchstone for this film (my absolute favourite piece of Hustlers trivia is that apparently Martin Scorsese passed on directing the film. Which is so beautiful that it’s true even if it’s not). And it’s very interesting checking to see the ways in which they run in parallel and the ways in which they don’t. The big one for me is that the final third of Goodfellas is basically all about the downsides of life as a gangster and how it fucks with your everything (and the clues are obviously there from the start obviously). Same with Wolf of Wall Street too. Basic point being that if you look at these people and think that their lives are something to envy then you’re not really paying attention.
But Hustlers. Well. The only downfall they really experience is being caught (remember – the system works kids!). Up until that point it seems like they’re having a great time (naked men who didn’t quite make the swimming pool not included). And yeah ok maybe I’m just jealous and I don’t want to see people enjoying themselves and of course it’s not like there’s only one way to make a movie. But you know – every movie is trying to sell you something and Hustler’s kinda swerves from seeming like it’s going to give you an insightful and powerful critique about the way our system works into something that just kinda revels in how great it is to be able to buy lots of stuff.
Like it’s feels so very telling that the movie closes with Jennifer Lopez saying “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance” like it’s some sort of profound wisdom when instead it’s just a perfect encapsulation of the limits of the movie’s entire worldview. Which really amounts to very little more than erm – make sure you get yours?
Which is of course what makes it a McMovie.
Personally I prefer stuff like Marge Gunderson’s take: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
“As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an erotic dancer.” Is not only not the opening line from Hustlers, but at no point would anyone ever watch the movie and think it was a desirable career choice.
It can definitely argued that being a stripper is an empowering sex positive choice where an artist is able to perform and make good money from men they are under no obligation to. The film tries to say this, but certainly doesn’t try very hard to sell that opinion. But then maybe it doesn’t matter what the women think of themselves. Is stripping about the strippers or the customers? Certainly strip clubs seem to have a weird hold over society and appear in constant gangster films as a sign that “well I must be a player because look I am in a loud sticky room drinking shots with other men while women dance for me, this is what success looks like.” So regardless of whether the stripper is a girl boss living her best life, the men are there because they want to feel like they are in charge of women, like they are slave owners or something. The service is less about the voyeurism itself and more about status of the voyeur.
And to be clear I am not making any judgment. If I knew someone who was a drug dealer or banker or even a [shudders] librarian, it’s not for me to understand the choices they’ve made. Unlike this movie which explicable draws sharp moral distinctions between the all American enterprising strippers and the Russian prostitutes. But within the context of this movie there is kind of a unspoken “well I bet you thought strippers were dumb and helpless didn’t you? We’ll see how we have confounded your expectations.” And that annoys me because firstly it feels like I am being tarred with the judgmental brush that applies more to the film makers themselves. But also because it does then seem to portray their heroines as being pretty stupid on a number of occasions, and panders to the worst assumptions of what a stripper or other working class/petit bourgeois person would be like when they suddenly receive lots of money.
To be fair Goodfellas does exactly the same thing, that is it shows people with money who did not grow up with it behaving like tasteless pricks. Both films say “look at these fools selling their souls for a few extra bucks and all they buy is garbage.” Except the wiseguys are also portrayed as dangerous uncompromising predators. They are not performing for anyone, they own the place, they do what they want and it takes the might of the federal government to finally bring them to justice. They may burn half as long but they burn twice as bright as the regular schmucks they despise.
If the cast of Hustlers had opened their own male strip club and made millions of dollars from men dancing for their entertainment. Or even if they had become Wall Street investors themselves oppressing the very men they used to dance for, the film could have been vaguely subversive. But no. By the end of the movie the main characters are pretty much as lost and helpless as when we first met them. So far from showing what it’s like when women take control, the whole movie seems like a pretty basic morality play along the lines of “all they really wanted was family all along.” Hardly biting social commentary.
I think what I wrote before maybe sounded a little stupid LOL (god knows it wouldn’t be the first time). As if there was only one way to tell a story and that for a movie to be good or worthwhile or valuable it needs to have a good strong anti-Capitalist agenda (Ha!).
I mean it’s true I do like films that espouse the same values as me but you know I also think Zero Dark Thirty is a great film even tho I think it’s actually morally evil (LOL maybe we should it as a Film Club film sometime…).
But I guess what I was trying to say is that films / stories are at their best when they show complexity. Goodfellas is a great movie because it puts you (to borrow another line from another Coen Brothers movie) in a tight spot. Like you know that pretty much every character you meet is morally repugnant and reprehensible and yet (for the start at the least) you can’t help but be pulled along by the glitz and the glamour and the thrill of it all. That famous single take tracking shot I mentioned before? For the whole movie you’re basically in the same position as Lorraine Bracco – being dragged around by the seduction of the whole thing. This beautiful car travelling at 100 miles an hour. And then of course in that final 30 minute stretch Scorsese lets in the rot in and tightens the vice and says: “Oh what? You were enjoying all of this? Well fuck you.” And then he crashes the car into a ditch. Although actually that’s not quite the right metaphor. It’s probably actually more about making you see what was there the whole time. So instead I guess it’s making you realise that actually the beautiful car is stuffed with dead bodies. And full of blood.
Of course Hustlers didn’t have to do this kind of thing. And in fact thinking of ways that it could have taken a more interesting route I realise it could have actually done the opposite – what if instead of the money damaging their souls and all that kind of stuff it had instead shown you that it had made them better people? Like all you really see in the movie is them enjoying the spoils of war and acting like they’re in an advertisement for the Western Way of Life. Fur coats and expensive bags and stuff. Although obviously without the same kind of sharpness as other (better) movies manage to pull off.
But what if Hustlers went further? What if it showed you how movie actually made them better people? What if it showed you helping their community? Making better schools? Repairing their past relationships? Making the world a better place? Like I’ve always been kinda suspicious of the idea of money but surely not every rich person is an arsehole? Maybe it’s possible to have money and still be a nice person? Maybe absolute power doesn’t always have to corrupt absolutely? And you know – as the critique as been made so often about how we need to have stories that don’t centre cis straight white men (which yeah ok fair enough) maybe Hustlers could also pave the way towards showing new possibilities of how we could behave as human beings?
Because the thing that’s so bizarre really is that Goodfellas was made in 1990 and here we are 30 years later and (with the exception of better representation) Hustlers is in nearly all ways a less sophisticated and less intelligent movie. Which erm is kinda the opposite of how it’s supposed to go no? I mean I’m not sure if I really believe in progress at the level of human society but I think I kinda do in terms of how art is supposed to work. Like people should watch what has already been done and then build upon that no? Finding new ideas and new wrinkles and new points of view. “What if Goodfellas – but with strippers?” is a good starting point for a movie. But then if the movie isn’t really smart enough to realise that Goodfellas is much more than a celebration of being rich and powerful then what’s the point?
Although I’ll admit that it is delicious to see something that sums up the mindset of Liberal #GirlBoss Feminism so well. The kind of person that watches Goodfellas and thinks that the problem with it is that it’s got too many men in it. And thinks that the solution to our horrible oppressive system is that we need more women doing the oppressing.
There’s a scene in Hustlers that actually sums this up rather beautifully. Around the halfway mark when Constance Wu is at her lowest point and everything is going to shit and she goes to speak with her manager Mark (Jon Glaser aka Laird from Girls!) asking if she can be let off a little early so she can pick up her daughter from school:
RAMONA … well, what if I could find someone to switch shifts with? Mercedes said she’d–
He sighs, rolling his head around.
MANAGER It took me forever to figure out everyone’s stupid schedules…
RAMONA I know, Mark. I just… I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t for my kid, she’s… at a difficult age and, well, lately she’s been having a hard time at her new school–
MANAGER Am I the father?
Ramona stops, confused. He looks at her.
MANAGER Am I the father?
She looks at him. Of course not.
MANAGER Then why would I give a shit?
He gets back to his sandwich.
Like it’s obviously totally obvious that her Manager is being a major fucking arsehole here and we’re supposed to boo him and hope he gets butt cancer but what’s interesting is that the rest of the movie ends up aligning with the same viewpoint. This arsehole asks “Am I the father?” because he believes that you should only show empathy to the people who are close to you / related to you. Which erm is actually one step behind Constance Wu who ends up ratting out J Lo to the cops and only realises at the end that you need to stick by your friends and whatever. (Is there a shot of J Lo in a white vest saying that the most important thing is family? Or was that from The Fast and the Furious?)
(There is actually a point in Hustlers where J Lo says: “We’re a family now. A family with money!” So erm yeah – same difference).
Point being: if you really want to show that the manager is an arsehole then there needs to be a moment which shows you that caring about someone even tho you’re “not the father” is the right thing to do. Instead the movie ends up underlining and reinforcing this odious dog eat dog mentality throughout (What’s the final line again? Oh yeah “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”). To the point where really the only problem it seems that the film has with the Manager scene is that it’s not Constance Wu in Jon Glaser’s place. Because after all if something is happening to someone that’s not family then well – why should she give a shit?
We see Jon Glaser looking sad.
Cut to: Constance Wu getting back to her sandwich.
I have struggled to write about Hustlers because I have struggled to remember Hustlers.
Usually, a film, good or bad stays with you to some extent. Enough so that a discussion of it will bring some memories back. A sense of imagery, the spine of the story, the thematic kernel that tried to drive the film.
I don’t really remember Hustlers. I remember some neon shots and a banker sweating and as Jonathan says, that judgemental brush that assumed “oh ho ho you thought strippers were X well actually they are Y”.
That said, critiquing Hustlers for not having the boldest take on “the system” isn’t necessarily fair – especially if this discussion is weighting it against Scorcese. Yes, yes, yes Goodfellas and Casino and Irishman are all great pieces of cinema / storytelling / excuses for a hungover Empire journo to hash out a column piece. But it’s not like any of them really gets under the skin of the world they existed in. Goodfellas has that killer opening line, sure, but then it is a mob movie about a dewy eyed arsehole that goes into the mob and not really a meditation on patriarchal relationships and violence. Casino, well it’s a flick about a pair of buddies that take over Vegas and slowly disintegrate. The Irishman is arguably the closest to genuinely examining a system, in that it doubles as a Jimmy Hoffa biopic, but really it’s there to tell the story of a doomed friendship, not explore the fraught politics of American unions.
So, belatedly, back to Hustlers – that’s why I don’t think it’s fair to blow it apart based on that. Like Scorcese, it skirts around giving you an insight, but it’s more interested in taking you close enough to let you ask questions than offer thoughts, challenge your own perceptions of a group of people you’d long been told to write off as “bad” and then build a compelling, characterful portrait of them through a fun story that inevitably sees them succumb to the gravity of normative morality – without ever returning to critique the social context that saw those characters succumb to gravity. That is a long sentence that I could edit, but I haven’t.
Then why do I still remember Casino and Goodfellas nearly a decade after seeing them? Why can I remember it’s character portraits, moments of the film that burn with clarity in my memory, the damn endings of the films? But with Hustlers, less than a year of having seen it all I can think is “Yeah so she became a stripper and then there was a scheme and she got money from the bankers and then she got too much money from the bankers and actually maybe the bankers can also be human and now she’s dealing with the police and maybe the main character and J-LO aren’t friends anymore?”
And the short, blunt, late night answer to that is – because Hustlers is , stripped of it’s “strippers game the system that gamed them” premise, is a middling xerox of Pesci and Deniro with glitter and stamped with Hollywood approved feminism (Joel, you can award yourself a chefs kiss for that liberal girlboss line). It’s well told, but it is at it’s heart, telling a story we’ve seen multiple times in better ways. It is, sadly, like when Hollywood announces their rebooting a dormant franchise with an all female cast. A diverting logline that can never cover up for the lack of a genuinely good story. There’s some fun dialogue, a sweet friendship and Constance Wu and J-Lo deliver magnetic performances – but even that can’t escape the gravity of familiar characters in a familiar story.
Ironically, now that I’ve written all of this about Scorcese and Hustlers, I find myself thinking back to The Wolf of Wall Street, a film I haven’t seen since 2013 and one scene that stays with me, bright as day:
After 3 hours of Scorcese basically delivering a theme park ride of “hahaha crazy banker does crazy fun things trying to outrun the law” – he turns the film into the post financial crisis film (apologies to The Big Short) by pointing out the big difference between Belfort and you, who have been pushed to judge Belfort for the past 3 hours, is that Belfort had a talent that enabled him to do all these crazy fucked up things. A talent other people generally don’t have – but if they did, they probably would wind up doing the same dumb shit as him. The rest of the film is an entertaining blur, but this scene wraps an iconic bow on the whole thing. Why? Because it has an idea, about the world, people and how they all work – a really interesting, challenging one that I still find myself mulling. Hustlers idea is, as Jonathan pointed out, that presupposing judgemental brush. And hey maybe, the wider audience would be wowed by the idea that strippers could actually be people too – maybe for a broad audience it is actually a thought provoking challenging film? For me, it isn’t and here we are.
I feel like I’ve been pretty harsh towards Hustlers, it’s a film I recall enjoying and it’s by a director I really like (although this is heavily based on an appreciation of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which I haven’t seen since what…2010?). It’s zippy, it’s fun, it has a distinctive aesthetic and it has some great performances. But, much like crime characters trying to best a system in a Scorcese film – you can’t escape the gravity of a story we’ve heard before.
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