“They lost track of the market, and I can profit off their stupidity? Fuck yeah”
The quote isn’t actually from Hustlers, it’s from The Big Short; it’s same Producer neglecting that it came out a mere four years ago.
Adam McKay, serving as such on the former and Director/Writer on the latter, doesn’t want you to draw the comparison. This author, having re-watched (irrespective of Hustlers) The Big Short in weeks past, can’t help but; nor will many, many a viewer.
Based on reports of former strip club employees following the ’08 Wall Street crash banding together to fleece their once clients’ ilk, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Lili Reinhart (Betty in Riverdale) and Jennifer Lopez are all on board, with the latter stars boasting their best performances to date. Lopez’ early routines in the club are excellent, though some of the fast editing within these sequences, uncharacteristic of the bulk of the feature, does detract somewhat from her superb turn.
It is in this first act where Hustlers most shines as we come to learn of this environment amid the film’s clear, consistent approach to the matter of whether this profession is empowering or else; a matter less maturely handled by many a film. One sequence where a very well known musician visits the club further envelops on this and is an especially fun highlight.
Comparisons to the 2015 Academy Award Best Adapted Screenplay winner being inevitable, as regards what The Big Short achieved Hustlers is comparably let down in three major respects.
First; the framing – and that’s aside the tight, constrictive framing of many a dialogue-driven sequence, with Director Lorene Scafaria distractingly focusing the lens too closely and for great lengths on individuals’ cropped faces. The whole narrative being encompassed within Destiny (Wu) relating the tale to a journalist (Stiles in a thankless, underdeveloped role) years after the fact, as employed here it’s a tried and lazy device. The deployment for the same function of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) those years ago at least had a novel, refreshingly irreverent approach; no such luck in 2019.
Second, and further to this point, Hustlers looks to be outwardly irreverent at times, though the repetitively meta group shots set to contemporaneous beats intended to impress our key players’ dynamic while aiming at levity grow tired fast. Had the film more leaned into this sparingly lighthearted, reflexive styling, best seen in the aforementioned first act encounter, it could have been that much more involving but for the scattered approach simply comes off tonally confused.
As an example, when a name is bleeped out, a stylistic aberration either (or both) intended as irreverent or necessary for legal purposes, the unique intrusion draws attention to itself in a way that otherwise worked in The Big Short which conversely thrived with consistent rather than singular signals to meta-commentary. The sequences that do however lean into comedy, absent an overarching desire to posit any like commentary, are very good; notable among them a heist-like scene involving a hospital visit.
Finally, the morality of this all. It is not entirely fair to compare Hustlers so heavily to a film which not all viewers will have seen and which is in major respects distinct, yet that analogous does underline what here was, irrespective of The Big Short’s existence, not handled especially well.
Whereas that film posited moral questions throughout as to whether Baum, Burry and co were complicit, justified or simply opportunistic, such dissection only comes at a much later, hurried stage in Hustlers. Moreover, when it arrives it comes largely through effective narration and sometimes exposition; most glaringly in a concluding speech intended to summarise the film. In The Big Short, such theorising was carefully woven into the dialogue betwixt those attempting to short the system; these moments themselves serving as clear signals from the filmmakers as to their and the film’s positioning on these capitalists. However Hustlers‘ events are intended to be conveyed, the filmmaking language here is never so effective.
Likewise playing out in the style of a heist thriller, as entertaining as many of the scenes are that so necessary to Hustlers’ intended resonance doesn’t bear the great thematic nor consequentially dramatic pretensions to which this film so aspired.
Hustlers is in cinemas from October 10
Hustlers on Film Fight Club