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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, British Cinema, EUROPEAN CINEMA, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

How the Other Half Lives… ‘Hustlers’ (2019) & ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2020)

Directed by: Lorene Scafaria [1], Emerald Fennell [2] || Produced by: Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Jennifer Lopez, Benny Medina [1], Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell [2]

Screenplay by: Lorene Scafaria [1], Emerald Fennell [2] || Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B [1], Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton [2]

Cinematography: Todd Banhazl [1], Benjamin Kračun [2] || Edited by: Kayla Emter [1], Frédéric Thoraval [2] || Music by: Jason Markey [1], Anthony Willis [2] || Country: United States1-2, United Kingdom [2] || Language: English

Running Time: 110-113 minutes || 1 = Hustlers, 2 = Promising Young Woman

A good indicator of a screenplay’s narrative effectiveness, a cinematographer’s visual charisma, a director’s overall command of their subject, is when a film earns the respect of audiences with fundamentally different life perspectives than its characters or story. As a small-town white guy raised in the Middle-of-Nowhere-ville, Midwest, USA, the moment I start to sympathize, let alone empathize with cinematic protagonists from a big city or of a different ethnicity, sex, or cultural background than I, that catches my attention. That tends to be an accurate predictor of a movie’s cinematic merit.

Left: Jennifer Lopez makes it rain with her veteran exotic dance in Hustlers. Right: Later in Hustlers‘ first act, Lopez takes protagonist Constance Wu under her (fur coat) wing.

Hence my interest in watching films made by women, about women, and at least from studio executives’ perspectives, primarily for women — though again, good filmmaking should have universal appeal if any viewer judges that filmmaking on its termsEnter Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a #MeToo take on the “promising young men” cliché (i.e. how men’s personal reputations are often protected by society’s authority figures at the expense of women’s credibility and safety in cases of sexual misconduct), Sundance Film Festival darling, and theatrical casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Lorene Scafaria’s stripper-focused ensemble crime drama, Hustlers, from the year before. The former movie is part dark thriller, part heightened reality revenge drama about a girl, Carey Mulligan, who seeks payback for the sexual assault of her now late best friend and that crime’s subsequent coverup; the latter follows the criminal adventures of New York exotic dancers who drug and swindle wealthy clients to climb out of poverty, told from the perspective of a rookie stripper, Constance Wu.

Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (henceforth, PYW) falls flat for me with its supposed “gritty,” “subversive” analysis on contemporary attitudes toward sexual assault, while Scafaria’s Hustlers won me over with its scrappy, underdog characters and unique, working-class women’s perspective on a Martin Scorsese-type crime drama (see also Goodfellas [1990], The Wolf of Wall Street [2013], The Irishman [2019]). PYW isn’t slow in the way most “slow-burn, atmospheric horror films are, but its story doesn’t move well over its 113-minute running time, nor is that story helped by how predictable most of its plot-points are: We know our protagonist’s love-interest (Bo Burnham) is not, in fact, a true “nice guy,” we can predict her plan to exact revenge against the sexual predator (Chris Lowell) of her deceased best friend, and we know most every line of dialogue of every sexist male extra or female apologist before they open their mouths. At the same time, Mulligan’s character feels inconsistent and underwritten, seesawing between quasi-realistic outbursts (she feigns intoxication to entrap morally questionable young men throughout the film, then reveals her sobriety without physically harming them) and almost rape-revenge film-levels of retribution (she attempts to slice Lowell’s body with her best friend’s name, has an elaborate backup plan when that fails, and hires a literal hitman to execute Lowell’s former lawyer).

Hustlers, on the other hand, introduces us to its world of New York strip clubs, struggling single mothers, and the Wall Street douchebags who patronize them gradually and with an editing flow that accelerates narrative rhythm. While I remain irritated with director of photography Todd Banhazl’s choice of handheld camerawork for dialogue-driven scenes, much of his documentarian aesthetic works for long-takes throughout Hustlers‘ club settings and quick exposition. This visual approach introduces the film’s ensemble cast without wasting time, dialogue, or feeling forced (e.g. Cardi B’s minimal yet likable guest performance feels natural and informs the audience of this stripper subculture instead of feeling like a contrived celebrity cameo); Jennifer Lopez acts circles around her cast, sure, including protagonist and audience-surrogate, Constance Wu, but the latter’s blandness is forgivable given the aforementioned editing rhythm, appropriate and plentiful montage sequences, and effective flashback structure of the script. More or less the only aspect of Hustlers I wholly disliked was its bland popular music soundtrack (this is also a problem in PYW), which sounds like a medley of songs A Dose of Buckley would lambast.

Carey Mulligan (foreground center) dances with quasi-douchebag, quasi-“nice guy” stereotype, Bo Burnham (midground center), near the end of Promising Young Woman’s second act, the structural placement of their relationship indicative of its insincerity.

While I’m sure Lorene Scafaria and Emerald Fennell loved each others’ films and mutually agree their success is beneficial for women’s representation in mainstream cinema, my problem with the latter’s project and appreciation for the work of the former has to do with artistic focus: I don’t know what type of film Promising Young Woman is supposed to be or what its tone is (Dark comedy? Vengeful drama? Ironic character study? All of the above?), and that indecision shows in its dull, conventional cinematography and slow pace, no matter how groundbreaking it aspires to be. Conversely, Hustlers managed to seduce even my cynical, contrarian soul through the universal appeal of its down-on-their-luck characters, memorable sense of humor, and recognizable, stylized visuals. One film channels cinematic empathy, and the other, I argue, cannot.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Promising Young Woman, like countless other high-profile, “important” films I was supposed to like before and since, never grows beyond its touchy content and settles for inconsistent shock value instead of memorable characters or a powerful cinematographic approach. The film never picks a lane, whereas Hustlers knows exactly what kinds of genres and stories it wants to emulate: Rags-to-riches dramas, rise-and-fall crime sagas, and wacky comedies, with a neo-noir visual backdrop to boot.

However… both films struggle with their generic, unimaginative pop music soundtracks, which feel lazy even compared to the forgettable yet original orchestral music of most other modern Hollywood movies. Though I wasn’t enamored with Carey Mulligan’s performance, she has more flavor than Constance Wu, who is overshadowed by both celebrity guest stars and co-lead Jennifer Lopez.

—> Given that Promising Young Woman alternates between the tones of heavy-handed awards-bait and a weak impersonation of David Fincher, Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is NOT RECOMMENDED, whereas I do RECOMMEND Lorene Scafaria’s eclectic crime drama, Hustlers.

? How does one earn those credit cards with limits of upwards of $50,000?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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