Hustlers (2019)

2020 #39
Lorene Scafaria | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hustlers

A struggling stripper (Constance Wu) is taken under the wing of an older pro (Jennifer Lopez) at a club frequented by super-rich Wall Street types. The going is good… until the 2008 financial crash happens, knocking out their clientele and, in turn, them. Of course, the Wall Street guys got away scot-free after that debacle, even as others floundered — including our stripper friends. That is, until J.Lo and co come up with a scheme to rip the bastards off.

Crime movies are sometimes criticised for glamourising the illegal acts of their characters. Sometimes that’s people misreading the film (in the case of many a Scorsese movie, for instance). Sometimes it’s true (the many rip-offs by people who misread Scorsese movies, for instance). Sometimes it’s unavoidable, because we’re going to be on the criminals’ side however you present it — and I think that’s the case here. Those fuckers had it coming, and these girls brought it to them. Not all heroes wear capes clothes.

Even more satisfyingly, it’s based on a true story. Director Lorene Scafaria leans into the story’s caper movie parallels just the right amount, giving the movie a great tone — funny without turning it into an outright comedy; heartfelt without getting schmaltzy; a crime drama without getting self-consciously Gritty. Her direction is fantastic, with exciting shot choices, editing tricks, sound design, and fitting needle drops. But among the razzmatazz she doesn’t lose sight of the point: it’s about these women and their relationships as much as it is about the scam they pulled.

Every day they're hustlin'

And so the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Wu and Lopez, but they’re both strong enough to carry it. Wu gets the bigger arc — from nervous newbie to confident co-conspirator to a frustrated “only adult in the room” position when others begin to push things too far. We also see her in framing flash forwards, where she’s in a different position again. Normally I hold little truck with this kind of framing device, because it’s often a lazy shortcut through the story or gives away too much of where thing are going. Here, though, it’s just tantalising enough to make you wonder where exactly she’s ended up, and therefore how exactly she got there. J.Lo’s performance has attracted plenty of praise (there was widespread disappointment when she didn’t get an Oscar nom), and she is wholly convincing as an outwardly glamorous and successful woman with a steely survivor’s core.

“Strippers rip off rich businessmen” sounds like the setup for an exploitation movie, and in other hands it probably would’ve been. But without a leering gaze, and with a true-story basis that remembers these women are human beings, there’s a dimension of reality that elevates proceedings — even as it’s still fun seeing the underdog pull a fast one on schmucks who deserved it.

4 out of 5

Hustlers is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

2015 #118
Lorene Scafaria | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Singapore, Malaysia & Indonesia / English | 15 / R

This melancholic apocalyptic comedy wasn’t too well received, which is a shame because I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

As an asteroid heads inevitably towards Earth, Steve Carell decides to go on a road trip to reconnect with his high school sweetheart. Neighbour Keira Knightley tags along. Quirky things happen; they bond; as the end of the world nears, they rethink their lives.

Carell gives a very good performance, trading in the kind of understatement that makes him a much more interesting actor than his stock-in-trade outrageous comedies continue to imply. I guess Knightley is playing a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least to an extent, but I thought she was a plausible character nonetheless. There are certainly more egregious examples of the trope. It’s another strong performance, anyway, containing a lot more truth than your average MPDG.

Also, there’s a really, really cute lickle doggie.

The thing both leads nail, as does writer-director Lorene Scafaria, and what made the film so good for me, is an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It’s a hard feeling for films to evoke, I think — more complex than happiness or sadness, or excitement, or even fear. It comes to a head in an ending that actually brought a tear to my eye, a rare enough feat that it cemented a five-star rating.

5 out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.