Constance Wu

Hustlers

15/09/19

Jennifer Lopez dominates the screen in Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s impressive depiction of a real-life stripper-gang, drugging and mugging their so-called ‘victims’. As Ramona, Lopez is mesmerising: a strong, ambitious and generous woman, determined not to fall prey to a system whose odds are stacked against her.

Constance Wu is Dorothy/Destiny, the wide-eyed new girl at Scores. She’s worked in a strip club before, but not in New York City, where competition is fierce (I mean, Cardi B works there; this is not for the faint-hearted). Destiny just wants to make enough money to live an independent life, and to help her gran get out of debt. Teaming up with Ramona seems like a good idea – and it is. Because Ramona is the best: she knows exactly what the customers want, and she’s a kind and supportive friend.

The film plays out as a series of flashbacks, linked by an interview with journalist Elizabeth (played by Julia Stiles and based on Jessica Pressler, whose article about the ‘hustle’ inspired this movie). It might have been interesting to learn more about Elizabeth, but still, it’s thanks to her persistent questioning that Destiny reveals the truth behind the women’s actions. It’s a fascinating watch, supported by a stellar soundtrack.

For once, here is a movie that doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it, to bemoan the exploitation of women while simultaneously objectifying them. Sure, there are lots of semi-naked bodies here, and several explicit pole routines. But we’re never positioned as the strip-club audience, never invited to join the fantasy. We see things as the women see them: as impressive moves, or as ways to earn a crust. It’s a fine line, and it’s well-navigated here.

We’re on the women’s side; of course we are. They just want to earn a living. We see them try ‘proper’ jobs, earning minimum wage, unable to pick their children up from school. As Ramona says, everyone’s hustling. Some people are throwing the money around, and the others are dancing. At least at the strip club the money is good.

But, after the 2008 financial crash, the pickings are slim. The Wall Street players have drifted away from the club; the women are getting older; they can’t be dancers forever (although, seeing fifty-year-old Lopez in action, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the hell not). So Ramona concocts a plan: target a guy, drug him, then take cash from his credit card at the club. When he comes round, he won’t remember everything, and he certainly won’t want to complain to the police, or risk his family finding out where he has been.

Ramona and Destiny recruit two trusted colleagues, Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and everything goes well – until they get too greedy, until flaky Dawn (Madeline Brewer) joins the team. By now, tensions are running high, and Destiny’s friendship with Ramona faces its biggest threat.

This is, actually, a wonderful film, as full of heart as it is of rage: an affecting human tale, of women refusing to be cast as victims.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield