OK, I was wrong. This isn’t the disaster of a movie I thought it would be, based on the premise and the trailer. In fact, it’s a pretty darn good film, though I’d be hard-pressed to see it as the great work of art it’s been touted as in some quarters. It is, however, a frequently penetrating, always interesting, occasionally difficult movie that works, despite a tendency toward cliches and a final spiral into unnecessary melodrama.
Writer/director Craig Brewer has crafted a pretty standard rags-to-riches tale, but without the riches, so that it becomes more of a hopeless-to-hopeful story that’s distinguished by sharply drawn, original characters — and some of the best acting to be found in movie houses this season.
Brewer’s film is not without its problems, especially toward the end, but some measure of its shortcomings is obvious from the onset. The basic setup is hard to go with. Terrence Dashon Howard plays D Jay, a small time Memphis pimp with a limited stable of hookers who’s perched on the verge of a midlife crisis. He gets the idea in his head that maybe he can become a rap — more correctly, crunk — star and change his life.
There are so many inherent problems with this premise that Brewer paints himself into a corner from the onset. It’s hard to care about the fate of a pimp and penny-ante drug dealer who wants to record songs bemoaning how hard life is for a pimp.
To make matters worse, Brewer has detailed D Jay’s discovery of music as a possible way out of his aimless existence with all the simple-mindedness of a 1940s composer biopic. First, he gets fed the information that successful rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris, Crash) is coming to town for his annual birthday party. Then a crack head trades him a keyboard for a rock. Then he meets an old school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who works as a sound engineer for hire. Key takes him to a recording session with a gospel singer in a church … et voila, the light bulb goes on above D Jay’s head and the dream kicks in.
What’s remarkable is that Hustle and Flow slowly pulls you in through shrewd characterizations — mostly from the sympathetic supporting cast, whose acceptance of and loyalty to D Jay finally make it impossible for us not to care about him. It’s a startling feat and an occasionally dazzling accomplishment with moments, however fleeting, of near brilliance. The recording sessions are amazingly well done, including one momentarily magical scene, in which D Jay’s pregnant hooker, Shug (Taraji P. Henson, Baby Boy), hears her own recorded voice in one of the song’s choruses.
There are still flaws. The character of one of D Jay’s women, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker, who had the most memorable line in Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth), is so extraneous that she just disappears from the movie part-way through. The turn toward third-rate melodrama in the movie’s last section was probably meant to keep it “real” (or at least out of the realm of hokey inspiration), but it feels contrived and phony.
Still, it’s a worthy movie on so many fronts that such flaws can be forgiven, if not overlooked. Despite the sketchy lionization of a far-from-admirable hero, the tone of the film is sound and goes a long way toward making the music seem like a unifying, rather than a divisive, force, which is what 8 Mile wanted to do and couldn’t pull off.
The performances are little short of amazing, especially the ones from Henson and Taryn Manning (Cold Mountain), but everyone is remarkably good — even D.J. Qualls — and Anthony Anderson redeems himself from the dreck of King’s Ransom. Rough, gritty and flawed, Hustle and Flow is — but it’s also worth your time. Rated R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke