It's hard out there for a Critic!
No it isn't.
Howard plays a young, sleazy and selfish little pimp from Memphis (Tennesee, not Egypt) named DJay. DJay pimps his young and beautiful prostitute named Nola (the excellent Taryn Manning) and sells premium pot in order to eke out his meager existence. In that his existence seems to be defined by pimping and dope selling, you can imagine the man is in a bit of a rut. Through a series of fortunate events, DJay both takes possession of an electric keyboard and meets up with an old friend with an ear for music (Anthony Anderson's Key aka Clyde). At this point DJay decides that it's time to stop merely beating women and calling them bitches and hos, but to add to that rapping about beating women and calling them bitches and hos. That and how difficult life is for a man who beats women and calls them bitches and hos. I know I'm cryin' for ya, Argentina!
Key and DJay recruit a piano player named Shelby (DJ Qualls), as well as DJay's girls, Nola and Shug (Taraji P. Henson) in order to produce an album about pimping and beating women. Soon everyone is singing about physically assaulting prostitutes, from DJay himself, to his new friends to even the very prostitutes he is rapping about smacking. This guy has PR like Dick Cheney!
The only thing left in this puzzle is STARDOM. Luckily, Djay is in good with a bartender named Arnel (shut yo mouth! Talkin' 'bout Isaac Hayes!), who's in good with Skinny Black (Ludacris) the local boy who became a Rap Mogul! Now all he has to do is create the demo to end all demos and have his girls pay for it.
Whether you like the lyrics at all, watching the recording take hold is a pretty interesting prospect to say the least. There is no question about how very much DJay wants this, even if to obtain stardom means to leave the very life he's rapping about. Howard is fascinating to watch as he brings forth the layers that make up his character. However, the question of why this guy really deserves this, or why we should care if he gets it is never truly answered. Howard is able to show this man's depth and inner sensitivity, but this comes off as being much more a credit to Howard's notworthy acting skills than anything in the script. We can feel his longing and taste his disappointment every step of the way, mainly because it literally shows in Howard's eyes! If nothing else Hustle & Flow is an excellent showcase for the acting of Terrence Howard, especially as DJay's scratchy voice and gutter anger is about as much like the REAL Terrence Howard as I am to David Lee Roth.
True, this is more than just a showcase for our star, and it's also true that he's not alone here. Manning is excellent and tortured, and Henson does a perfect "little fish in a big pond" impression, especially as she sees herself contributing to something she sees as great. It's all the more frustrating to see this when placed against the background of the roles these women take on as tools for DJay's success. None of the women truly feel fully formed here (even when they are greatly acted). They are constantly used as outlets for money or sex, and are thrown out on their asses when they display a little independence. Even Key's strong and surefooted wife is only given a real moment when she gives in and brings her absent husband sandwiches while he spends all his time at the mixing board. One would think that a man as skilled as Craig Brewer is with writing dialogue could write women a little better. Of course he may be just telling it as he sees it, but if so, it might have worked a little better in a more original plot.
The morality of any movie shouldn't affect its rating (and doesn't here), especially as the film's worst crime is that it has been done before... but probably never better than it is done here. Brewer is one to watch, and as he carries us through the progress of DJay, one can't help but watch to see what happens with the hustler turned flowing rapper. This is one universally well acted film, rife with good dialogue. Not a bit of it is better represented by the scene-owning Terrence Howard, and the well-crafted words he speaks.
Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Hustle & Flow. It may feel a little like 8 Mile or Rock Star, but it's a cut above in the writing and the acting. Get hip and hop to this one but be prepared to parse out your conscience and take it as a piece of art, not a model for living life. After all, you can watch Return of the Jedi without suddenly deciding to blow up planets and shoot lightening from your fingertips, right? Okay, so I'm writing this on not much sleep. Critiquin' ain't easy, but somebody's gotta do it! Pimp you in the next reel.
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They're all rapped up in a nice little package...