Hustle & Flow

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/28/05 21:39:07

"Gotta applaud the ambition, even if it's not your kind of story."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I'll give Craig Brewer some credit - he made me like "Hustle & Flow", despite nearly all of my personal preferences advising against it. My thoughts about its individual elements run the gamut from "disinterest" to "disdain". But go figure; even if he and his cast don't quite make me CARE about a pimp who would be a rapper, that the characters were able to grab my INTEREST is a victory in itself.

DJay (Terrence Howard) is a Memphis pimp, but not a particularly prosperous one. He's got three girls in his stable, but with Shug (Taraji P. Henson) pregnant with his child, Nola (Taryn Manning) a less-than-high-end country girl, and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) belligerent (and having recently given birth herself), he's all too aware that things aren't exactly getting better. A couple brief discussions give him an idea, though: Arnel (Isaac Hayes), a local bar owner, mentions that local success story Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be having a party at his bar. And a guy he knew in high school as "Key" (Anthony Anderson)is doing some work as an audio engineer. Well, DJay used to rap in the same places as Skinny, and not many thought Skinny was that much better. If DJay could make a demo, and slip it to him...

Memphis has a rich musical history, and if you accept the view of the city that Hustle & Flow presents, it's in part because music is a potential way out. Maybe you won't hit it Elvis-big, but maybe Isaac Hayes-big is a possibility. Anything, to get out of this dirty, run-down spot where all the houses seem in disrepair, DJay's car with its non-matching bodywork doesn't look at all out of place, and only the strip club where Lexus works appears to be doing any kind of booming business. As poor as the place is, it's still home, though; nobody ever really talks about getting out of Memphis, just being in a better position.

DJay is the one with the ambition, or what passes for it. As the movie starts, he doesn't even seem to be a very good pimp: His job is that of a salesman, but when he's flagging down johns, he doesn't project much confidence in Nola, his "product". Lexus, on the other hand, looks to be more than he can handle. He really doesn't have much of a head for business, which is even more necessary than a mean streak to make illegal enterprise succeed. Howard seldom raises his voice, and it occasionally lulls the audience into thinking that he's a generally decent fellow, in an unpleasant line of work basically owing to circumstance, but he'll follow it up with something offhandedly cruel. And the next minute, he'll once more convince you that he cares about his girls, without it ever feeling contradictory. It's a nice little performance, not looking like much, because the character's greatest skill appears to be selling people on themselves.

The rest of the cast is good, at least good enough to make the audience feel something about them. Watching Taraji Henson is uncomfortable at times; Shug's clearly in love with the father of her child, even if he seldom displays much more than obligatory affection toward her, and Henson makes it look like she could collapse at the slightest provocation. Taryn Manning's Nola is almost childlike at times; you could argue that she needs someone like DJay to look out for her even as he exploits her, because she's too trusting and not too bright. She occasionally displays an awkward dignity, though, even while giving the impression that the character wouldn't grasp the concept. Anthony Anderson plays the sort of easily likable guy he specializes in, making him a little too comfortable with going back to the streets after having worked hard to get out. Elise Neal, as his wife, will be some audience members' surrogate, as she tries to be open-minded and supportive but really doesn't want her husband involved with These People. D.J. Qualls provides comic relief as Key's mixer, who really doesn't seem to fit in as a skinny middle-class white kid.

I didn't necessarily like most of these characters and situations, but they interested me. The cast made me believe in the characters, while Brewer made me believe in the setting. And there's a really nice vibe to the story about how even the people in the most base or degrading positions have the desire to create. That's an interesting thing to watch, and ponder. It's interesting outside of the context of their chosen medium being gangsta rap. So the last act is a little disappointing, in a way, because although it's dramatic and concludes the narrative and character progressions in a satisfying way, it's also somewhat rap-specific; that it embraces clichés ironically does mitigate that it's kind of formulaic.

So the film's attention kind of wanders, and it doesn't quite become what it started out to be. Craig Brewer and his cast and crew make an interesting story from a subject I'd normally ignore, and that's a welcome surprise.

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