‘Hustlers’ offers striking visuals, conflicting story

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment

“Hustlers” is a survey of the mind of a criminal who the viewer does not see as the bad guy. It is an in-depth look at the construction and destruction of female friendships. It is a one-of-a-kind story that has quite possibly the best cast of the year.

It is also a movie about strippers. Before 2008, strip dancing was a highly profitable business. Men as rich as those on Wall Street would come to clubs and spend tens of thousands of dollars in a single night. This is around the time when Ramona — played by Jennifer Lopez (“Maid in Manhattan,” “The Cell”) — and Destiny — played by Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Fresh Off the Boat”) — meet.

They become instant friends with the expertly talented, mama-bear type Ramona taking newcomer Destiny under her wing as her protegé. Things go well for a time — Destiny and Ramona are making money and becoming close with the women alongside them, not because they happen to work together, but because of the work they do together. But then the recession hits in 2008, and things immediately start to change. The new dancers will give blowjobs for an extra couple hundred bucks, everyone in the industry is either Russian or a model (or both) and the era of prosperity and friendship is over for women like Destiny and Ramona. This leads to the formation of a new enterprise, one where the women have gained the upper hand over their male customers.

With Ramona’s people skills and Destiny’s business sense, the two women decide to embark on a “robin hood” scheme to steal back the money Wall Street plundered from the working class.

The plan involves staking out high class restaurants for men who look rich. This does not simply mean men who have expensive-looking suits, because anyone can splurge on a suit. No, these men have the watches, the shoes, the means to drink and even the wedding rings.

The next step is the tricky one, but in this case, “tricky” is a loose term that also encompasses the phrase “highly illegal.” The ex-strippers approach the newly-found target, flirt, order drinks and, as soon as the rest of the “sisters” in Ramona and Destiny’s tightly-knit crew would arrive, slip a calculated combination of ketamine and MDMA into the target’s drink.

The rest of the plan is relatively simple — convince the now incapacitated men to come to the club and max out their credit cards with no regrets.

Writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “The Meddler”) does an incredible job of adapting the 2014 New York magazine article the film is based on into the film the viewer sees today. The true story comes across in the hour and fifty minute movie in a terrifyingly accurate manner — almost word-for-word in some instances.

Although Scafaria’s screenplay is stuffed with countless cannot-make-this-up details straight from the source, the closeness of Ramona and Destiny’s relationship appears to be pretty heavily exaggerated. The bond between these women, however inaccurate, does add some needed emotional depth to the horrifyingly amoral attitudes some of the women hold toward the felonies they are committing.

The lighting and cinematography of the film is stunning. The vibrant purples and neons pop; the ostentatious furs and clanging jewelry set the scene for how much money these women are dealing with; but it is not all glamorous. Scafaria made sure to include the streaky hair dye, the cigarette smoking, the gaudy piercings and tattoos. She also managed to separate the film from others with similar settings and — namely, strip clubs and strippers — with the beautiful classical score. Some of the most thrilling sequences in the whole movie are made so impactful because of the uniqueness of having classical music play alongside them.

Yes, the score also has contributions from Usher and Cardi B — both on the soundtrack and the screen — but the movie is not dominated by one genre of music, similar to the film’s overall comedy-drama-tragedy spread.

Even though Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer’s comedy capabilities are showcased spectacularly, Scafaria builds tension like a Tarantino movie, and Lopez’s performance has been generating Oscar-buzz, there are some flaws with the film. Namely, the biggest issue is the organization. With Adam McKay as an executive producer, one might expect some of the fun edits that made the Big Short so great — especially considering that the topics of the two films are somewhat similar — but unfortunately these wishes go unfulfilled.

More diverse cuts and editing techniques would help alleviate the occasional repetitiveness of the stripping and Wall Street montages, because they do take up a good portion of the middle of the film.

Fun, sultry and empowering, this movie is an exhilerating thrill ride. Still, “Hustlers” manages to keep a layer of melancholy beneath its surface so that the viewer does not forget the wrongfulness of what these women are doing.

At the same time, though, the viewer cannot help but want them to win in some instances because their situations in life are too depressing to think about otherwise.

Plus, a lot of the men they manipulate are, in fact, somewhat deserving; these are the people who got away with the 2008 recession scot-free. Almost universally, they have wives and children yet go to strip clubs. They do not even respect or appreciate the very wealth they for which they are targeted. But, then again, that is not all of the victims. Some are sorrowful divorcees who are so pathetic, the women almost feel bad for stringing them along for new MacBooks.

The constant push and pull between who the viewer is rooting for in the movie make the whole experience that much more enticing — the viewer feels what the women feel: the intoxicating freedom and joy of the heist, in addition to the consistent voice in the back of one’s head, almost shaming the viewer for enjoying it. The tension-filled, girl-power-infused, nail-biter defies any and all expectations through the complexity of the characters and the story. The economics are relevant, the fashion is terrifying and the two hours the viewers spends in the theater will leave them thinking for weeks on end.