One Liner Review:
A very simple-minded movie about characters who steal from their clients and try to get away with it.
A movie that starts out kind of interesting, but quickly becomes like every other movie we’ve seen in this genre before. The genre is that of criminals. More specifically robbers. They are always sneaky in their operation, and the girls in this movie are no different. In the first half, the movie uses voice over to explain things to us. This includes the different dances a stripper can do around a pole, (J Lo explains those to us by teaching one of the girls, so voice over isn’t used on that one,) but the others include how to tell what kind of guy is a baller, and the different levels of guys who come to the strip club. All of it seems to make sense, including the ways that the girls negotiate a percentage of how much a guy will spend at the club, with the club owner, for bringing the guy there. But in the second half, the movie stops explaining things, even though the rules keep changing. Instead of strip clubs, they’re going to hotel rooms, and none of it makes a whole lot of sense. The movie is never great, but at least in the first half, it’s kind of interesting. By the second half, however, it just becomes a complete mess.
Hustlers is not a very good movie. It’s a movie that takes a very familiar plot and tries to change only a handful of circumstances. Mainly the setting and the characters. We’ve seen plenty of movie about characters who rob and get away with it, until the law catches up with them. Sometimes it’s literal robbery, like in The Town. Other times, it’s stealing through business with the clients not necessarily knowing that they were scammed, like in Glengarry Glenn Ross, Boiler Room or Middle Men. Hustlers is most similar to something like that. Instead of taking place in a Wall Street office, the movie takes place at a strip club. And instead of being about a bunch of guys, in this movie the stars are all women. But other than those two things, the story is pretty much the same.
We start out by following Destiny, (Constance Wu,) a young Asian woman who works at the strip club and finds herself with a less than satisfying life. She hates the job. She hates the fact that the male clients are disgusting and also incredibly mean to her, (we see one moment where a man is asking her what her father did to her as a kid to make her turn out this way, while he gets a lap dance.) And she hates the fact that she has to tip out to all sorts of managers after she ends the night. There’s the club manager who owns the place. Then there’s the security manager who tells her to let her know if the club manager is giving her a hard time. And she has to tip both of them, just to maintain the front that they have her back. We watch as even the girls working aren’t especially nice to each other, telling her to step off if she goes over to a man in a chair to ask him if he wants a dance, when the girl who is on stage is planning to go after him as soon as she gets off. It’s a dibs thing, with girls saying they have dibs on that guy, and he’s their territory and nobody else’s. This is actually kind of interesting.
In fact, there’s a decent amount that is kind of interesting in the first half. That’s when we are really brought into the world of the strip club, from a behind the scenes point of view. We meet Ramona (Jennifer Lopez,) when she gets on the stage and dominates, turning every head in the room to give her their full attention. And she quickly takes Destiny under her wing, offering to teach her whatever she knows about the business. There’s a great scene where Ramona teaches Destiny all the moves of different things a girl can down on and around a stripper pole. Each move has a different name, and Destiny comments on all of them, and whether or not she thinks she can do them. This is insider stuff that most of us never think about when it comes to strippers and strip clubs.
Speaking of that, the movie really does make it feel like you are in a real, functioning strip club. There have been plenty of movies about strip clubs that came before this, from Strip Tease to the Wrestler, which just didn’t capture the feel in a way that seemed believable. Those movies always felt like movies. With this one, between the music and the setup of where the stage is, the layout of the club, and the lighting and atmosphere, you really believe this place exists. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if it actually does. At the very least, the setting here is clearly modeled after real strip clubs to such an extent that the production team most definitely did their research, (including the specific songs that are played in strip clubs,) to get every detail exactly right.
Getting back to the plot, after Ramona takes Destiny under her wing and teaches her all the moves, she introduces Destiny to the hustle she’s running. She has two other girls who do this along with her, and the scam involves going out to bars, finding a guy, drugging him, and bringing him to the club. The girls don’t ever reveal that they work at the club, and instead pretend to be regular women out for a good time, who just happen upon the wild and crazy idea to go to a strip club that night. And they always work together. That means one guy is at the bar talking to just one of the girls, and when that girl gives the others the signal, they all show up and join in on the party. The girl who is talking to the guy always introduces her friends as her “sisters.” When called on that line, one of the girls comments that they all have the same father, but different mothers.
The hustle is handled with some nice details. These involve explaining to us exactly how the girls can spot a guy who is a high roller. It’s not by the type of suit he’s wearing. That is too obvious. And as Ramona explains, any guy can own one nice suit. It’s all of the little things that give it away, such as his watch and his shoes. The first half gives us lots of explanations done through voice over, just like this. Another one explains to us the types of guys who go to the strip club, and breaks it down to three distinct tiers of guys. There’s the low end guy who won’t do anything dirty, the middle guy who doesn’t push too far, but just wants to dip his beak into the ocean a little, and then the high end guy who is willing to spend a ton of money, but who is also expecting to get away with just about anything he does.
All of this kind of explaining and rule setting goes away in the second half, and that’s a large part of the problem with this movie. We know how this type of film goes… the first half is all about the rise and the second half is all about the fall. We’ve seen it again and again in movies like Boogie Nights, where the world and the rules seem so glamorous at first, until the characters get too far into it, and cross the line of what they can and can’t get away with. Here, all of the interesting explaining pretty much ends with the hustle. We see how the girls negotiate a percentage of the amount that the guy will spend at the club, with the club owners, so they get a cut of all the money he is dropping at the club. But we also don’t get to see a whole lot. For example, we don’t see the moment where they convince the guy to go to a strip club. We don’t see the girls helping the guy choose who he wants to get a dance from. And we don’t see the girls ordering the bottle service or doing things that would drive up his bill. We do get to see them throwing shots backwards into the air, pretending to drink them, which looks incredibly ridiculous and obvious. How about putting the shot in your mouth and then holding it there until no one is looking, before spitting it out into a glass of water or something?
Everything is going well for a while, until Ramona notices that other strippers at the club are trying the same hustle. They are also brining their own clients there and negotiating a percentage. And Ramona gets angry. She cuts ties with the club all together, and that means her crew does too. But they still have to make money and that means trying out a new technique. This new technique involves brining guys to hotel rooms. Now, how exactly this works, is never explained. In fact, there are most unanswered questions about this then there are given answers. For example, if girls are brining a guy up to the hotel room, then isn’t he expecting to have sex with them? It’s one thing to take him to a strip club where the strip show they are watching is the entertainment, but by brining him up to a hotel room, they now become the entertainment. Only the movie doesn’t show or tell us any of that. Similarly, if their whole act now involves bringing a guy to a hotel room, are they now posing as prostitutes?
The way they get guys is no longer by meeting them at bars. Instead, they now go through their contact lists of clients, from their days of working at the club. The two girls that were doing the previous hustle, at the club, with Destiny and Ramona, are no longer interested or committed. And so Ramona has to get new girls. And these new girls aren’t exactly the cream of the crop. They are drug addicts who can’t get clean. And this leads to whatever they have left of an operation falling apart. When one girl is with a client who does enough drugs to convince him to jump off the roof a building, and Ramona is nowhere to be found because she’s bailing one of the other girls out of jail, Destiny finally decides that she has had enough.
Pretty soon the drug addicted girls who are working for Ramona make one too many mistakes, and the police catch on. And now it’s time for the arrests. Followed by the article, which is being written by Julia Stiles, and which we see clips of throughout the entire film. This movie constantly flashes forward to scenes of Stiles interviewing Destiny, asking her questions about what happened during the days of the scam with Ramona. But the article never amounts to much. In fact, the whole ending, including the arrest is kind of anti-climactic. Especially since the movie ends with just getting screen titles that tell us what the consequences were for each character. Plenty of movies end that way, telling us how each character ended up, but with this movie it feels like we would have felt the impact more if we could actually see some of it. That means watching some of their trials or plea bargains, or even watching some of the girls visit others while they were serving time in prison. Something to make us feel the consequences. But this movie isn’t about the results. It is all about the setup and only somewhat about the execution. That’s why the first half is the best, and then the movie keeps moving downhill after that. In the first half, everything is explained, clearly and carefully. In the second half, only some things are explained. And by the end, very little is explained. And that’s basically how the movie feels to the viewer. It goes from interesting to confusing to we just don’t care anymore. It’s pretty interesting last first, but it sure does run out of steam as it goes on.