Thursday, September 12, 2019

Hustle Me This

In recent years my least favorite genre of films seems to have transmogrified into the Crime Caper.  I have come to find a strange nobility in the slog of the day to day dragging my ass to an office -- I have had to, or I'd probably have lost my head at this point. And so the fantasy of robbing and cheating and short-cutting one's way to riches doesn't hold a ton of personal appeal for me these days. I don't particularly want to roll around in dollar bills? Nor do I really feel like it's a spectacle we should be encouraging people to want.

I'll admit I get real weird about this! I can take the metaphor of most repulsive murdering just fine, but overcooked displays of rah-rah capitalism tend to grate on my nerve-endings. I'm poor now. And I've always been poor -- I can promise you I've known poverty the likes of which few have. And I have come to terms with poor. If you want to give me a wealth fantasy I can get behind in 2019 show me everybody getting Health Care and Education before I can entertain the allure of overpriced couture. Call me a bore, it's fine. Shopping montages, be they for Lamborghinis or lipsticks, just leave me personally standing over there, on the cold side. 

I feel like this prejudice of mine was especially set off, at least cinematically, by The Wolf of Wall Street, a film I had very little use for. I know Scorsese intended satire, I know it in my bones, but the giddy spectacle of gratuitous consumption there felt to me like it leapt right past its best intentions and became an ad for what it meant to decry. Nobody remembers the last act of The Wolf of Wall Street. Something like American Psycho remains for me effective as a satire years later because its repulsive killing set-pieces are sticky enough to chew up the Rolex competition. With The Wolf of Wall Street we just remember the fun parts. The cars and the coke and Margot Robbie spread eagle on a nursery floor. 

Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers is a better, more effective film than The Wolf of Wall Street. It does have passages where I felt my bias against the cult of big furs and bling getting rubbed the wrong way, but the film keeps enough of an eye on the real stakes of honest-to-goodness poverty -- of hard-lit dollar-store bins full of strappy plastic sandals and heaps of polyester baby bibs; of sweat and who-knows-what stained wads of singles flicked in a human being's face -- to build up some good will against the genre's grosser excesses. 

It helps that Scafaria proves herself to be an extraordinarily talented director here -- there's as much vibrance and verve in the filmmaking in Hustlers as there was with anything Scorsese pulled off in his murders and executions excuse me mergers and acquisitions days. Her camera glides around, loose-limbed, toes and lips curled, exceptionally alive -- this is a beautiful to watch movie, full of surprising rhythms and colors and tones, shots that wander and linger through dark rooms like light poems.

And it helps too that Scafaria has a cast to absolutely kill for -- these movies live or die for me on whether I can manage to root for any of these terrible folks just enough that I'll overlook for a moment the stick up my ass in regards to their stories, and it's nigh impossible not to find warmth and camaraderie among these women. There's a deep bench of admirable, fun performances -- Keke Palmer (whose show-stopping drop of the word "bitch" was for me the film's comic highlight), Lili Reinhart, and Madeline Brewer being stand-outs - but it's Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez's show, and they show it. 

You know I'm not particularly interested in Oscar talk, but I do think the J-Lo hype is probably a little over-done -- she's solid and charismatic as fuck here, but this doesn't particularly strike me as anything out-of-the-box; it's not a performance where any moment she delivers is going to carve out space in my brain. (Although awards are only sort of marginally for a hot minute about the actual performance -- they're more about the narrative, and Jennifer Lopez has got a good narrative.) Also the bond between Lopez & Wu gets a little wonky at times -- there's a subtext the movie keeps skittishly avoiding, if you ask me. But they do sell that friendship, and they thank goodness give us something human to hang onto inside this tornado of Louboutins and eyeliner -- the movie totally works, even opposite the odds I'd stacked against it.

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