Hustlers, the new film starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu about a group of strippers who scammed the men of Wall Street out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, is the first genuine cinematic phenomenon of the fall.
Audiences have praised the film’s spirit of sisterhood, its inspired filmmaking (from a mostly female team), and the go-for-broke, movie star performance by Jennifer Lopez, who gets one of the all-time great movie entrances: She’s introduced performing an elaborate, gravity-defying pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Critics have also mostly praised the film, which is 88 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s more than 20 points higher than its audience score of 66.
Hustlers, based on journalist Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” is about a group of strippers at a Scores-like strip club emporium in Manhattan who used their skills to make big money, mostly from Wall Street types. After the real estate crash in 2008 makes their previous, above-board business model untenable, the strippers take a turn into full-on crime, conspiring to drug and steal from their marks.
Just Like Marty
One thing that’s been noticed by many critics and other viewers of Hustlers is just how much it resembles Martin Scorsese’s crime films, most notably Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. It tells its story in a similar way, in following a criminal conspiracy, the way it works, the law enforcement response to it, and its ultimate consequences as things spin out of control – nearly always with cocaine playing a key role.
Even the filmmaking, from writer/director Lorene Scafaria, borrows various touches from the Scorsese canon, from camera moves to the use of pop music needle drops. It’s not such a shocker, therefore, that Scafaria said in a recent interview that Scorsese himself was at one point approached to direct the film.
One thing that’s been noticed by many critics and other viewers of Hustlers is just how much it resembles Martin Scorsese’s crime films…
I call it “Scorsese Karaoke,” a term that I believe I coined in my 2013 review of American Hustle, although I suppose its possible that the term was used by someone else sometime before that.
The Scorsese comparison is one that’s flattering to the film in some ways, but not others. It’s not the best Scorsese-style crime film, but it’s certainly not the worst either.
Do the Hustle
On the positive side, Hustlers finds a wildly compelling real-life story and does a great job packaging it into a movie. It manages to be sexy, without a tremendous amount of nudity, although that aspect might disappoint the sort of dimwitted moviegoer whose favorite part of each Sopranos episode was getting a look at the Bada Bing dancers.
Also, the film does a tremendous job with its music selections. “Criminal” is a great needle-drop, and so are Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much,” and Britney Spears’ “Gimme More.” It even makes good use of Chopin, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and my favorite musical cue in the film, Scott Walker’s “Next.”
On the other hand? There’s one difference between Hustlers and other films of the subgenre: The film devotes a lot more time and attention to justifying and making excuses for the characters’ crimes than this type of film typically does.
Films about the mob and other criminals are often accused of glamorizing crime, but in the vast majority of cases, that’s not actually what they’re doing. From The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, gangster films show the glamorous side of that life – while usually making clear, by the end, that there’s a price for such behavior, which typically involves some degree of losing one’s soul. Last year’s infamous Gotti was the rare mob film to depict its subject as an unambiguous hero, and it was also the most poorly reviewed Mafia movie of all time.
Hustlers, admirably, doesn’t judge its characters for being strippers. And then, not so admirably, it doesn’t judge them for drugging and robbing people either. The characters posit that the men they’re robbing work on Wall Street and therefore, because they crashed the economy and got away with it, that such treatment is deserved. But this overthrow-the-patriarchy class war posture is half-hearted, and feels a lot more like a post-hoc justification than anything else.
I mean, drugging people is a really, really bad thing to do! The film doesn’t use the word “roofies,” but it might come across a bit differently if it did.
From The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, gangster films show the glamorous side of that life – while usually making clear, by the end, that there’s a price for such behavior…
Furthermore, Hustlers implies that the only high-end strip club customers in New York in the early 2000s were Wall Street guys, which is far from true. What about random sales douchebags from various non-Wall Street industries? And what about athletes? Then-Yankee Alex Rodriguez – who now, ironically, is engaged to J.Lo herself – was spotted by the tabloids at strip clubs about as often as he was spotted at home plate.
There’s one other big mistake Hustlers makes. Lopez’s character, Ramona, gives a speech at the end in which she declares the whole country “one big strip club.” This is an unfortunate tendency, for movies to declare out loud that their movie isn’t about what it’s actually about, but is rather a microcosm of America itself. And the movie that did that most egregiously of all was the worst example of “Scorsese Karaoke” of all – 2013’s American Hustle.
David O. Russell’s film, which starred Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper was loosely based on Abscam, a minor political scandal in the late ’70s, and proceeded to fictionalize it to the point of being way less interesting than the actual scandal.
It was yet another movie that borrowed the general structure and filmmaking style from Scorsese, but did it while making one huge mistake after another: Career-worst performances for most of the actors, and insistence on constant leering closeups of Amy Adams’ breasts, feet, and ass. There was also Lawrence playing a part for which she was clearly the wrong age, one of three times in four years, because to David O. Russell, every woman is the same person.
…yet another movie that borrowed the general structure and filmmaking style from Scorsese, but did it while making one huge mistake after another…
But worst of all was that instead of telling a straightforward story about the scandal, the script felt the need to constantly have characters mention how everyone in America lies, and that’s just how it is, man.
American Hustle was inexplicably rewarded with critics awards and a bunch of Oscar nominations. The only saving grace? An actual Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street, came out just a week later, and was a considerable improvement, not to mention a film that still gets watched and thought about today.
A Big Bright Shining Star
Other “Scorsese Karaoke” movies have been better. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was probably the best one, which also drew on Robert Altman to tell an epic tale about the porn industry of the 1970s.
The most recent one, before Hustlers, was 2016’s War Dogs (also based on a magazine article), which was about a pair of Miami dudes who stumbled into becoming international arms dealers. War Dogs had the great sense to cast Jonah Hill in the Joe Pesci part, even if it wildly embellished the true story.
What’s the next “Scorsese Karaoke” movie? I propose the story of Prenda Law. They were a Chicago law firm that specialized in representing pornographers, and threatening/extorted those who had downloaded pornography with copyright claims, which they often settled to avoid embarrassment, to the tune of millions of dollars.
At one point, the firm was accused of cutting out the middle man and producing the porn themselves, although they were eventually put out of business and faced criminal charges. How this hasn’t been made into a movie yet, Boogie Nights meets The Firm, I’ll never understand.
Hustlers, for all its flaws, has a special quality to it, and has a chance to be as well-remembered as any other movie this year. Of course, it will have an actual Martin Scorsese movie, The Irishman, to compete with in just a couple of weeks.