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by Jay Seaver

"Far more interested in the players than the game."
3 stars

"Hustlers" is a pretty darn decent movie based upon a true story in the "and then this happened" mold, the sort that doesn't necessarily reveal some greater truth or fit together like an intricate puzzle, but has enough of the messy reality that a viewer can identify with its criminal subjects. There's clearly more to the story than this movie gives the audience, but it delivers what's advertised, and is probably especially satisfying for those more interested camaraderie than crime.

It establishes the friendship first as Dorothy (Constance Wu), who has just moved up from stripping as "Destiny" in a roadside Jersey place to a club in Manhattan, makes friends with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the star attraction who teaches her how to entertain rather than just strut in her underwear. In 2008, with insane amounts of money flowing through Wall Street and into the clubs as finance bros want to get off the same way they trade, it's highly lucrative, at least until she gets pregnant. When she returns a few years later, after the financial crash and the arrival of a wave of skinny Eastern European girls who will do anything in the champagne room for cheap, not so much. Ramona's new plan is "fishing" - finding guys in bars to bring to the club and maxing out their credit cards once they're passed out. Working in teams with friends Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they're soon making what they used to, but Ramona is ambitious, and soon finds ways to drain the marks more efficiently.

You don't have to squint too hard to see the parallels here: The amorality of Wall Street seems to jump to Ramona and company like a virus, and their schemes in many ways start to resemble those of the people they're ripping off, with the ladies selling a diluted product that, once they've started drugging the guys, contains as little getting wasted with attentive naked girls as their derivatives did top-rated securities. That sort of thing. That's not really what the movie is about, though; writer/director Lorene Scafaria spends relatively little time pondering where the enterprise is delicious revenge or a sign of how far the rot extends - Destiny more or less shrugs when it's brought up later in the movie - as opposed to the more uplifting found-family aspects. There are multiple scenes of women getting new apartments or bonding over their parents' abandonment, and the centerpiece is a Christmas party where Ramona is delighted to meet Destiny's grandmother. That material resonates with the audience well enough - it's a big part of why the film can be easy to embrace - but Scafaria tends to stick with those easy parts and elide over the other sides of them that actually make things in the story happen: The film ultimately turns on what happens when a member of that family gets out of control and endangers everyone, but that's something that isn't examined too closely.

It should be. The most appealing thing the movie has is Jennifer Lopez being Jennifer Lopez all over the place, and she seems more than capable of getting deeper into what makes Ramona tick. She's obviously perfect casting for the ringleader of a gang of ex-strippers who knows how to weaponize her physicality while also being warm enough to attract friends rather than just marks. She's magnetic on screen and clearly the center of this story, which is why it doesn't seem to do the film any favors to tell it from the perspective of Constance Wu's second banana. Wu is more than fine - she adds a sarcastic snap to scenes that need it and brings some of the crazier ones just far enough down to earth - but that's the job of a great supporting character, not the one at the top.

It also necessitates making the reporter who wrote the story that the film was based on a big part of telling the story here, with Julia Stiles dutifully showing up and reflecting the somewhat disapproving but sympathetic faces of the audience. This is how the true story entered the public consciousness, but here it mostly highlights how the film has deliberately left gaps left to be filled in but instead leaves most of . Ramona's decision-making offscreen. It doesn't get boring, because Destiny winds up taking the position of the sensible one who helps clean up the mess, but she's often reacting to the story rather than driving it.

That story is also told with pleasing economy while still having room for entertaining details and flourishes that are more clever than not. She's got a knack for giving the audience Destiny's perspective in how things are shot and edited, especially in the early scenes of her first days at the club, where she and Wu have her not quite star-struck but kind of excited to be in the big leagues, with everything around her not titillating or grimy the way it might be for others but fast-paced and exciting even if it is also a job.

The sense of being there certainly makes "Hustlers" an enjoyable watch, even when it's backing off the more difficult questions that the story raises. It's very dependent on viewers either coming in with or rapidly developing empathy for its characters, and if they can't get there quickly, the film is not much more than a bunch of things that happened.

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originally posted: 09/19/19 23:50:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/18/19 Bob Dog Solid women con artist film - J Lo sure don't look 50. 4 stars
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  13-Sep-2019 (R)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2019

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