Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

Hustlers is a tale set in the seedy underbelly of New York City. Although the city’s most violent period is behind it, there still exist many stories of people barely scraping by and having to resort to desperate measures in order to make ends meet. In the year 2014, journalist Elizabeth approaches a former stripped from New York City named Dorothy for an interview. Dorothy is initially hesitant to tell this story, not wanting to put her friends in jeopardy. Eventually, she relents, though she makes it clear that Elizabeth isn’t to probe certain subjects.

The story begins properly in 2007. Dorothy, known by her stripper name Destiny, is working a club named Moves to support her grandmother, who is in bad health. Shortly after joining, she is mesmerized by the performance of one Ramona Vega. The crowd is similarly enthralled, for they proceed to throw copious dollar bills her way. Destiny meets up with Ramona later and the two become fast friends. The experienced stripper even agrees to give the newcomer advice on how to succeed in this business. For a long time, things are looking good for the two of them. The tips are plentiful, the crowds are enthusiastic, and they even get to meet a few celebrities looking for excitement – most notably, Usher.

Unfortunately for them, these good times aren’t to last. A devastating financial crisis strikes the nation in 2008. As the film accurately shows, this was a horrible time for anyone seeking to enter the job market. This is especially apparent when Destiny attempts to apply for a basic retail job in a department store only to learn she is ineligible due to a lack of experience. With no other options, she returns to Moves. However, the financial crisis has affected the club as well. It is primarily staffed by immigrants willing to perform sexual favors for money. Destiny’s life hits rock bottom when her boyfriend leaves her shortly after their daughter’s birth. This low point is punctuated when Destiny gives oral sex to a man in a private room under the pretense that he will give her $300 for it. She later learns, to her horror, that the sum of money he offered was actually around $50.

Eventually, she reconnects with Ramona. To Destiny’s surprise, her friend has a new idea. Ramona, along with her two new protégées, Mercedes and Annabelle, has decided to target rich men in bars. From there, they proceed to get them drunk and escort them to Moves where the strippers steal their credit card numbers and charge them to their limit. Destiny joins them, and quickly learns of what their methods entail. Using a mixture of ketamine and MDMA, they impair their targets’ judgement, later leading to memory loss. The best-case scenario is that they will never suspect their money is missing. As a contingency plan, they can count on their victims’ pride to prevent them from admitting to the police that they were robbed by strippers.

Hustlers was released in 2019 to a warm reception. Many critics saw the film as a monument to female empowerment. These were women who took one look at the karma-dodging investors roaming Wall Street and decided to take back what they stole from everyone else. Superficially, it would appear that director Lorene Scafaria succeeded in this mission. This is a film with strong performances from its female leads and they do command complete control over their situation – or at least until their plan goes awry.

However, I have to say that the very reason it was praised constitutes the film’s fatal weakness. The film’s overall tone reeks of the more problematic aspects of left-leaning works from the late-2010s. Although a vast majority of the people fighting for these causes were civil, there was a nasty, fringe undercurrent to the movement fueled by genuine misandry. Exacerbating matters was this undercurrent’s tendency to hunt down anyone who didn’t agree with the mass consensus. There are many examples of this phenomenon in action from the media’s insistence that anyone who didn’t like the independently produced video game Gone Home had to have been a misogynistic homophobe or the infamous incident wherein one critic possessing the temerity to give Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird a negative review founded himself hounded by an angry mob on social media – all while the perpetrators claimed to be progressive. Worst of all, because many of these reactionary responses were perpetuated by the journalists themselves, they often went unchallenged.

I am making the following criticism as someone who is, always has been, and always will be an unapologetic liberal, but there’s no getting around that Hustlers is one of the most misandrist films I’ve ever seen. I know that every single one of the critics who praised the film would have deservedly hung it out to dry had the genders been reversed. It’s especially unfortunate how these journalists had no problems with the film given that just one year prior, famous comedian Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. His favored tactic was to slip Quaaludes in his victims’ drinks and rape them while unconscious. Many of those journalists who commended Cosby’s guilty verdict turned around and praised the characters in Hustlers for using the exact same predatory tactics.

It doesn’t matter if the protagonists never commit any sexual assault themselves; what they are doing is immensely creepy. If the film had explicitly said from the beginning that Ramona was in the wrong for doing this, I could have accepted it. As it stands, the narrative all too often tries to have its cake and eat it. Even with the platitudes Ramona espousing about how unfair it is that these men robbed the country and received no comeuppance for their wrongdoings, it’s impossible to root for her or her crew – especially when they themselves receive practically no comeuppance for their own wrongdoings in the end.

To put this in perspective, the four men who attempted to steal a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America from Transylvania University were given a seven-year prison sentence while these women received a slap on the wrist despite their actions being far more heinous. As a friend more familiar with the law than myself pointed out, if any of their targets had an undiagnosed medical condition or fatally injured themselves while under the influence, these women would be hit with murder charges. Analyzing these two events at face value, it means the law considers a failed robbery which resulted in zero fatalities committed by men worse than a successful grand larceny that had a far greater potential to be lethal, yet was carried out by women. Double standards are extremely damaging to society, yet it’s difficult to take the protagonists’ grievances seriously when they directly benefit from them at the same time.

There is a small glimmer of self-awareness to be found in that Ramona’s scheme does indeed go too far. One of her marks is a man named Doug. He has had a string of bad luck from his house burning down to his wife leaving him when she learned their son was autistic. He only went to Moves after his friends attempted to cheer him up, yet Ramona has no qualms robbing him.

A later sequence also provides a legitimately progressive moment in that it demonstrates just how poorly police responded to his report of robbery. When he tells them that the strippers robbed him, they laugh at him before hanging up. It also shows that Destiny has at least a faint glimmer of humanity in her because this causes her to turn on Ramona. The problem is that by the time this development occurs, it’s too little, too late. It doesn’t come across as a necessary look at the consequences of these illegal, immoral acts, but rather extreme, last-minute backpedaling. It’s as though Ms. Scafaria realized the unfortunate implications halfway through production and added these scenes to preemptively address the inevitable criticisms.

When your story lacks self-awareness, key facets suffer in turn. After all, who is to say that the other men these women scammed weren’t facing similar issues? Just based on statistical probability, it’s unlikely that every single one of them had a completely stable life. It’s easy to forget that financial success and indulgence in excesses aren’t indicative of good mental health – in many cases, the opposite is true. While that could have been an interesting route for the film to take, the narrative settles for dehumanizing almost every other victim, turning them into hapless dupes the audience is supposed to laugh at and depriving itself of any kind of nuance in the process. Consequently, the moment in which we retroactively feel guilty for laughing at the victims never really occurs.

“So, how could Hustlers have been so acclaimed when it had this many obvious, glaring problems?” you may ask. I feel a low barrier to entry combined with an inability to take criticism caused many backwards-looking ideas to infect the cultural conversation at large. These two facets caused the zeitgeist to become more radicalized. Suddenly, it wasn’t uncommon for female empowerment to come at the expense of actively hating and demeaning men – which is exactly what Hustlers is guilty of. In the interest of fairness, Ms. Scafaria did say in an interview that her film was not intended to be about female empowerment, but her intentions don’t make the unfortunate implications of the narrative she crafted any less real.

The film ends with Ramona claiming that the entire nation is a strip club populated by two kinds of people: strippers and those throwing the money. While I’m sure it sounded avant-garde on paper, the problem is that this isn’t the first work to make such an observation. The Pop Group, an experimental rock band that formed in 1977, managed to craft a similar message much more succinctly and without the treasure trove of unfortunate implications Hustlers bears with their cult single “We Are All Prostitutes”. Indeed, the 2010s marked the period in which filmmakers fell far behind creators in other mediums, so it’s oddly fitting that what seems provocative to them is fairly tame by those versed in more than one artistic field.

Not to mention that, coming from a person who scammed many men out of their money, Ramona’s cynical observation lacks any kind of teeth. What was ostensibly intended to be provocative and get the audience to think about the weaknesses of American society instead comes across as a sore loser whining about how unfair it is that she got punished for committing grand larceny – sour grapes, in other words. Again, this could have been effective had it been the point, but the narrative suggests we’re supposed to take her words seriously.

It also doesn’t help that the ending credits have the main characters strip for the audiences one last time, thus shooting holes in its own message. As mentioned before, there is little self-awareness to be found in Hustlers, and its end sequence only punctuates this deficiency. The entire narrative attempted to humanize those partaking in a profession considered heinous by many conservatives only to have said strippers provide one last bit of fanservice to cap off the experience. Although it was probably intended to be tongue-in-cheek, this development demonstrates what a confused mess of a film Hustlers truly is.

Many critics compared Hustlers to the works of Martin Scorsese – specifically Goodfellas. Although I can sort of see a few parallels between Goodfellas and Hustlers, it’s disingenuous to imply they’re in the same league. I will admit there are some legitimately funny moments to be found and certain story beats work well. Sadly, as a whole, there’s no getting around that Ms. Scafaria’s narrative spouts a decidedly bitter, hateful message which has no business calling itself progressive. Whereas Goodfellas openly acknowledged the flaws of its cast, Hustlers, at best, sweeps them under the rug. At worst, it seems to be under the impression that these serious flaws are empowering.

Because of its numerous failings, there is no metric by which I could recommend watching Hustlers. It falls into the same curious trap as Ex Machina in how it presents scantily clad women right for the camera to see only to later rebuke the audience for ogling them. The passive-aggressive relationship creators had with their audience is a significant reason why many critical darlings from this era have not stood the test of time. There’s also the fact that, at the end of the day, neither the writing nor the performances match the sheer amount of charisma exuded by Mr. Scorsese’s own work. His was a film that could potentially make people feel a degree of sympathy for some of the most ignoble people imaginable. Meanwhile, Ms. Scafaria’s effort consistently fails to do the same despite her own protagonists never resorting to killing. When you don’t have a grasp of how sympathetic your cast is to your audience, it will lead to the downfall of your story’s integrity every time.

Final Score: 3/10

11 thoughts on “Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

  1. From your analysis, Hustlers sounds like yet another movie that’s trying to have it both ways — let’s have a cast of characters who commit criminal and dangerous acts (what if one of their victims had a hidden medical condition that caused the drugs to unexpectedly kill them, something that happens in real life all the time? Then our protagonists would be murderers) but let’s try to pretend they’re right to do what they’re doing. You’re right to contrast this to Goodfellas. It’s totally possible to create nuanced characters who do bad things but who still inspire some sympathy, but the movie can’t just give them an out for it. No, to make that work, you have to be a good writer. It’s easier to be a hack and write pandering garbage, especially if it gets you critical praise and awards.

    This might also contrast with the reception Joker received before it was even released. I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve heard that it’s somehow not the bitter violent loner-empowering movie all those critics claimed it would be. It’s almost like you have to experience a work and analyze it with a critical mind before you can write about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know, I didn’t even consider that, but you’re right; the fact that this scheme didn’t end with a murder charge is really more a matter of luck than anything else. That’s why you’re the law-talking guy around here, huh?

      Anyway, yeah, “having it both ways” is very much the defining flaw of this film. As I said, if the film realized that what these people are doing is wrong, focused more on the aftermath of their actions, and presented their lack of any lasting consequences (outside of continuing to live rather shallow lives) as an incontestably bad thing, they could’ve had something there. But, no, the director didn’t have the self-awareness, level of introspection, or, quite frankly, talent to pull it off. The cast of Goodfellas consisted of roundly worse people who still came across as more sympathetic than the cast of Hustlers. If nothing else, Mr. Scorsese’s realization that his characters were horrible people ensured those who would never take their side could get something out of his film. Sure, you get people who think the Goodfellas cast is cool, but they’re never really taken seriously (plus, they wouldn’t last a day in the real mafia). I am absolutely aware it’s not the mainstream argument, but what is truly disturbing is how many people legitimately believe Hustlers to be about female empowerment. It’s behavior like this that turns so many neutral people off of feminism and other progressive movements. I’m all for them because I know supporting them is the right thing to do, but an outsider could very easily be manipulated by far-right pundits into seeing it as a movement that actively humiliates and demeans men, and as long as garbage like Hustlers keeps getting praise, the narrative is going to be difficult to disprove.

      Also, the soundtrack of Goodfellas is way better than that of Hustlers, just saying.

      And yeah, the Joker film seems to be much more of a hit with audiences than critics, so I wonder if somewhere down the line, it will receive its dues. I firmly believe that many of today’s critical darlings are not going to be fondly remembered in the long term (and if they are, I’m going to attribute that more to the critics’ collective stubbornness rather than their darlings’ staying power). I think we’re honestly to the point where the fans are beginning to make more sense than the critics. The various think pieces critics pen whenever their favorites are maligned typically forgo any logic and come across as highly vindictive. I remember one guy making a video wherein he told fellow video essayists to shut up about plot holes (while telling the audience they’re watching movies wrong like any “good” 2010s film critic for good measure). While I do think it’s possible to be too nitpicky, telling any kind of critic not to care about plot holes is like telling random people that breathing isn’t all that important.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, that’s right. I hope I’m a better law-talking guy than Lionel Hutz at least.

        I think you’re spot on about progressive movements and how they’re expressed through art right now. There’s not much self-awareness or introspection, and everyone has to fit the same sort of political and social orthodoxy or face the consequences — get shunned, “canceled”, whatever else that entails. I’m also pretty much on the left, at least as it’s defined in the US, and it’s very frustrating to see how tone-deaf critics and creators can be when they’re trying to make a statement, even when they’re trying to address real problems that need to be addressed. I believe these tendencies have even driven some people into the alt-right movement who wouldn’t otherwise have gone there, maybe out of spite from being told they need to shut up just because they’re men. It does real damage to progressive causes.

        As for that video, man. There’s a guy who loves tearing down some strawmen. Sure, there are channels like Cinema Sins out there that deserve all the crap they get, but reasonable criticism of a story’s plot holes is totally warranted. Why just fly over to the other extreme? This reminds me of those people who tell you to “turn your brain off” when you take in entertainment. That one really gets under my skin.

        Also, since I didn’t say this last time, congrats on movie review #100.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t have any sympathy for the people who went into the arms of the alt-right because I know a lot of them did so because they weren’t being awarded for being decent human beings. Even if that’s not the case, you still have a choice to do the right thing even if society fully expects you not to do so. However, I do believe that in many cases, the left did push many of people away simply because of their extreme dogmatism. If they loosened up a little, they could have gained some powerful allies. As it stands, their rigid – often contradictory – standards really alienated a lot of people, and if that behavior pushed even a few people away, that’s on them.

          Yeah, we can add that guy to the growing list of people who act all big in their own little worlds, yet would be utterly demolished in a real debate. And you’re right, this is yet another problem I have with the current critical circle; once they perceive a problem, they do whatever they can to reverse every single thing they’re doing, not considering for a moment that maybe, just maybe, their opposition actually has a good point or two. It’s really not good when the people attempting to advocate for Team Intellectualism promotes blatantly anti-intellectual sentiments like Patrick (H) Willems did in that video. I remember back when that was the defense dullards would use to shield bad films from criticism, so it’s jarring seeing the other side adopt it just because they can’t stand having common ground with their audience.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, I can’t sympathize either. As hypocritical and frustrating as the left can be, those movements are mostly still the ones that stand for human and civil rights and scientific progress, whereas the alt-right movements only stand for backwards and destructive ideals. You’d have to give up your principles completely to make that kind of move, and there are still plenty of strong progressive and democratic types who aren’t dogmatic jerks. Anyway, doing things out of spite never ends well, if spite is really a part of it.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Good. You saved yourself about $10 because this movie blows. And the acclaim it enjoys relies on the fact that the critical circle’s headspace cannot perform any kind of serious introspection to weed out the more problematic aspects of their values. Indeed, the critical acclaim of Hustlers is the logical conclusion of a group not liable to take any kind of criticism.

      Liked by 1 person

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