“It’s hard out here for a pimp.” Ever since Three 6 Mafia won a surprise Oscar last month for Best Original Song, that hook has become a kind of calling card for writer-director Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, in the same way that “I wish I knew how to quit you” has become the de facto tagline for Brokeback Mountain. Indeed, that anthem seems to be the movie’s entire point, as it depicts dirt-poor pimp Djay (Terrence Howard) as he tries to give up his trade and break into the rap business. It’s 8 Mile, with worked-over prostitutes and a Memphis backdrop. Unfortunately, this Cinderella story fails to make the dreams of this hustler worth our time.
Central to the movie’s problems is that I never for one second liked Djay. I understood that he was poor, frustrated and possibly talented, but he was such an utterly unlikable human being, I didn’t really care if he made it to the top or not. Writer-director Brewer clearly intended Djay to be an antihero, but he put too much emphasis on the anti. Djay treats the women in his life (prostitutes with varying degrees of personal relationships with him) horribly, yet every now and then when he throws them an emotional bone, we’re supposed to like him and think of it as some kind of empowerment for them. Truly great hip-hop music says something honest about our culture, whether it be race, politics, economics, the disparities among different types of people, or how any of these elements intersect. Lousy hip-hop music glorifies misogyny, drugs and violence as means to achieving respect and power, and unfortunately, Hustle & Flow falls into the latter category. It asks us to make a hero out of a poor excuse for a man.
The performances are decent overall, but they do not compensate for the weakness in the script, nor do they showcase much of what the actors have to offer. Furthermore, the thick Memphis accents, low-budget sound quality and mumbly acting make a big chunk of the dialogue impossible to comprehend. Howard, in his Oscar-nominated performance, is okay at best, though his shaky-voiced intensity is a bit one-note (and I’ve seen it in too many of his other recent performances). Taraji Henson and Taryn Manning both show promise in hookers-with-hearts-of-gold roles, but I felt like their characters were doormats, putting up with Djay’s self-absorbed, abusive behavior. Anthony Anderson comes off best as Djay’s old friend and producer, but DJ Qualls (best known for Road Trip) is ridiculous as a musician who works on the record. I think Qualls is intended as comic relief (a dorky white guy who likes music about slapping ho’s and bling, how original), but both his role and his performance are awkward and unfunny. Ludacris shows up briefly at the end, though he (and Howard) had a better showcase in Crash.
The only time the movie comes to life is during a few segments where Howard, Qualls, Henson and Anderson piece together a song. It’s a bright spot during a depressing, overlong and draggy film, because it briefly taps into the creative process and shows us what Hustle & Flow could have been: A celebration of people making something beautiful out of their own pain. Instead, it causes the audience some pain of its own.
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