HUSTLERS – movie review

STX Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 9/10/19
Opens: Sept. 13, 2019

Hustlers Movie Poster 24" X 36" Or 27"x 40"

Based on Jessica Pressler’s 7,237-word article in New York magazine December 8, 2015, “Hustlers” deals with young women who work in strip clubs, which generally means that they do pole dancing and for extra money they perform lap dancers on the men who attend. Whether they all go further with the guys after closing time is not discussed, as writer-director Lorene Scafaria wants us to think that these “girls” are not dime-store street hustlers but are regular women who need the money to support their grannies, their children, college tuition and the like. They may have tried their hand working in retail stores at nine dollars and hour, so you can see how they can greatly increase their income with the bills that the mail clients throw at the stage or put inside the workers’ skimpy clothing, or the Benjamins that come out for the more private sessions. In fact these women are not exploited by their customers, since after all they make a good living dancing for them, but the real tawdriness comes from the bosses at the clubs that they have to cut in on their income.

“Hustlers” takes as its theme something said toward the conclusion of the movie by Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez) that “the whole country is a hustle,” a critical view that is more likely akin to left-leaning political philosophy, the liberals, the Marxists, the students at elite colleges presumably blaming others for being on the make. The livelier segment of “Hustlers” takes place during the first half, the second part reserved to provide the girls with a sounding board on what they think of their trade, of their customers and their bosses, even reserving some contempt for their employers in retail stores where they can barely make ends meet.

The most involving part shows Ramona, an experienced pole dancer, taking the innocent Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing, teaching the shy newcomer the tricks of dancing, and in doing so giving the movie audience the treat of some classic “steps” that you would hardly think possible from a fifty-year-old actress. The entire story is framed by Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a journalist taping testimony from Ramona and Destiny about the activities that went from just doing their jobs on to grand larceny, the progression that might make us think that they are getting revenge on the Wall Street crowd that fills the seats at the club. I’m not sure that the showgirls want revenge for the role of executives in the 2008 collapse of the American economy, since banks, working with the funds, had shred the economy with their shady manipulations leading to the closing of the club. The women proceed to haunt the bars that accommodated these rich guys, both young and adult, acting as a team by making each targeted man believe it’s his charm that arouses the cuddly affection of four or five women.

In reality, though, they would spike the drinks with MDMA and ketamine, which both wiped out their memory of the nightly events and put customers into semi-comatose conditions. They would take the credit cards and sometimes had the dazed marks sign credit slips, then going on to simply taking the cards and charging up to $50,000 per man, getting the transactions approved, and sending the money to a corporation they set up. They would then proceed to buy fur coats and the like, and to show the movie audience that they are not that bad, we find that they are supporting families including one grandma.

There’s little question that Jennifer Lopez turns in a spectacular performance, maybe even her best so far, as a tough, experienced woman who acts as mentor to Constance Wu’s Destiny. We men may look at women performing in strip clubs as obviously attractive and capable of knocking some impressive splits in their miniscule clothing, but they really are human like you and me, capable of maintaining friendship and providing conversations just like any other working stiffs. In the lead role, Constance Wu’s Destiny does not have even a high-school diploma though she has passed the so-called equivalent, which would have made her eligible to any number of civil service jobs. Their customers, hustlers just like them, are rich white guys (strangely nobody of color shows up to patronize the shows,) can be seen as exploiting the less-educated women and you’re free to think that, though remember the handsome income that these men provide to women who would more likely be cashiers in CVS making minimum wage.

The pop songs are many, running through the soundtrack, the production values emphasizing the darkness in the clubs and the brightness of the digs that the conniving women can now afford are spot-on. Yet the proceedings can become awfully repetitious, and while the jokes are there, there is not enough here to call “Hustlers” a comedy, nor is the drama deep enough to be insightful.

109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B-

THE CHINA HUSTLE – movie review


Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jed Rothstein
Screenwriter: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Carson Block, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl, Maj Soueidnn
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/23/18
Opens: March 30, 2018

The China Hustle Movie Poster

History has judged capitalism to be the winner. With the exception of a handful of countries—Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba—all follow the tenets of capitalism whether they announce themselves as capitalists or not. And theoretically, capitalism is the most form of economy that has integrity; that is, if you do good for others, make the products that people actually want, you will get rich. However there is another way of looking at this: if you get away with stealing from the people, you can also get rich. Or as Balzac said “Behind every fortune there is a great crime.” The latter opinion gets cinematic treatment in Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle.”

When I visited China in 1985 the country was a lot different from the way it is now. The street in Shanghai that was to resemble New York’s Fifth Avenue was a dark and dismal place, its stores pathetic haunts with shoddy goods, but at least the Chinese people were able to afford them. Tipping was not permitted. China was Communist in word and deed. Flash forward to 2018 and China has become the second largest economy, threatening to knock the U.S. off its pedestal as the world’s leading producer. The country that houses 1.3 billion people calls itself Communist, but though Mao’s portrait remains in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese people according to some are the most eager in the world to amass great wealth.

Still, some companies are shady at best. While the Chinese government forbids foreigners from owning stock in its corporations, leave it to those in America with the most vivid profit-making ideas to find a way around the law. The technique described in Rothstein’s documentary, called the reverse merger, is for Chinese companies to creep into the American stock exchanges like Trojan horses. When an American company is about to go belly-up but is still listed on our stock exchanges, a Chinese company pulls a reverse merger. This means that the foreign company enters the American one like a dybbuk, merging with a dying American corporation while operating in China. Hedge fund managers and financial companies would solicit investment from rich Americans, using the ecstatic balance sheets to convince all that huge profits can be made. Who needs Bernie Madoff when so many other clever capitalists can do the same?

There is one trouble: some Chinese companies vastly overstate their revenues and prospective futures even though they are heading south just like the defunct American businesses. It’s only the balance sheets that are raves. When some crafty Americans visiting China took note, discovering that the factories in no way enjoyed the traffic they claimed, they could have blown the whistle to expose them. Instead, these would-be muckrakers, aware that the bad news is around the corner and that the stocks would soon race for the basement, they sold the stocks short, a technique that allows investors to borrow stock from the brokers. Then, when the stock goes way down, return the stock to the brokers by repurchasing at the lower price. (See Wikipedia for a full explanation of “selling short” at

Rothstein’s doc hands the stage to people who have profited by this scam. As one leading financial manager states, “There are no good guys here. Not even me.” The film does not overstay its welcome at just 84 minutes and is reasonably easy to understand unless you’re a North Korean and have never heard the term “stock market.” Its editing is snazzy, meaning lots of bells and whistles such as you’d find in an action drama. It serves as ample warning: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. If any two words summarize the lessons taught, they are: Trust nobody. Do not take expert opinions except with a grain of salt, as Bernie Madoff’s investors learned the hard way.

Do I have to warn readers that Donald J. Trump should not be trusted? He recently pushed through and signed legislation that he said would deregulate 70% of the corporate world, as though he never heard of the market crash of 2008. If there’s anything that could be said of “The China Hustle” it’s that its lessons have not been absorbed by people who should learn from them lest they wind up selling apples on the street to make a living.

Unrated. 84 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B