Synopsis – Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.
My Take – To be honest, like most, at first glance, I too wrote this one off as yet another gorgeous women doing crime film. The past two years has seen a spike in female-led crime pictures, though, with the likes of Ocean’s Eight (2018), Widows (2018), and The Kitchen (2019) leading the charge. While they vary in quality the other common thread between them is the added wrinkle of the women taking out at least some of their frustrations on the men in and around their lives.
Thankfully, this film never goes down that road. While it may seem easy to see this one as something as exploitative as Showgirls, its great kinetic energy added with certain elements does help the film to become one the most endlessly entertaining films of the year.
Here, director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend For the End of the World) takes a lot of influence from the works of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay (who is also a producer on the film along with Will Ferrell) and offers a glimpse of what a 80s-style crime caper would look like if it was written and directed by a woman, as director Scafaria effortlessly keeps the film going at top speed, hereby turning a 2015 New York magazine article into one hell of a wild film.
All the while also successfully cementing Constance Wu’s new found stardom and creating maybe the best role Jennifer Lopez has ever had in the form of queen bee stripper Ramona. A role in which she not only shines, but also gives what may be her best performance in a years.
Told in flashback, the story follows Destiny (Constance Wu), who in an interview with a journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), tells her about how she had turned into a stripper back in 2007, to help take care of her grandmother, and after paying off everyone else in the club, including the stage manager, the DJ and the security guard, would be left clasping little more than a couple of $20 bills after hours of grabby men stereotyping her.
That is until she befriends Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a commanding and confident veteran stripper, who unashamedly laps up all the money being thrown at her. Taking Destiny under her wing, the two end up making piles of cash off their Wall Street clientele, and form a strong friendship.
However, when the 2008 financial collapse hits, the women’s pipeline of generous clients dry up as half of Wall Street lose their jobs. Desperate to make things work in their favor as both now have young children to raise, without the support of their absent fathers, Ramona hatches a plan to bring back their financial stability. The idea is to stalk high-end bars where a married rich man would hang, surround him with beautiful flirty women, ply him with alcohol, slip him a drug that will render him helpless and unable to remember and then drain his credit cards.
To round out their plan more effortlessly the two reach out to their struggling former co-workers, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), to join up. While their scheme takes off immediately, however, with outsourcing thrown into the mix, their situations begin to get deeper and riskier, where their morality slowly begins to strip away.
The marketing for the film gives the impression of containing Ocean’s 8 vibes, but the end product is a more grounded and somber film than those dramedies. It has its funny moments, but it’s probably closer in tone to Widows than to a romp heist flick. Though what resonates most in director Scafaria’s telling is that getting even is simply not the primary motivating factor. These women have formed a business model that works, allowing for an upheaval of traditional power dynamics and for the maintenance of a high-living lifestyle, even as the bottom falls out of the economy.
The scheme eventually crumbles like all great rise and fail tales must, but the key to director Scafaria’s film isn’t in the criminal elements, it’s in the characters. In addition to directing, Scafaria who also penned the script, imbuing the narrative with the themes of family and sisterhood. We see the four women come together and follow the journey of bonding through redemption.
Without a doubt, Destiny and Ramona are the heart of the story, their relationship a complex web of power dynamics, love and, eventually, schism. Laws are being broken, people are in danger, the police are closing in, but it’s the bond between Destiny and Ramona that holds both the film’s suspense and heart up through its immensely satisfying final scenes.
Of course, it’s not just this core relationship that’s so compelling, it’s in the camaraderie among the women in the backroom of the clubs, and then the crime syndicate they form. Also what the film does best is highlight again and again how much work goes into being a stripper.
It makes sure to point out how physically strong these women have to be to perform the tricks they do, taut muscles undulating under sparkly lingerie. But the film also tackles the degradation of being used and abused by men who see them as nothing more than a means to an end. Some coerce, others cajole, but none of them recognize them as people with their own interior lives. It makes it easier to root for the women when they begin drugging and stealing from men, a crime that is no less severe simply because their targets may have been the worst kinds of misogynists. There are men in the film, obviously, but the male characters’ dialogue is kept to a minimum as representatives of customers, lovers, and bosses.
Of course when a film’s principal set is a strip club, you can expect a lot of fist-pumping music, and the film more than delivers on that level. Here director Scafaria shows off her great production talent as she makes use of several slow-motion montages mixed with a perfect soundtrack of mid-2000s R&B hits. There’s one moment where all these great facets come together in a surprise meta-cameo from Usher himself. The perfect music choice, the choreography of the dancers, and the blocking of the movement make it the most exciting and memorable scene in the film.
However, the film does slip when it comes to the moral reasoning of the actions and character development as they are both put to the sideline in favor of more dancing scenes. In her defense, the dancing scenes are the best part of the film and a treat to watch. But they each start to become empty near the end as the lack of depth and ethical stakes become too obvious to ignore.
Performance wise, this is Jennifer Lopez‘s career-best. Her grand entrance in that opening scene’s pole dance is nothing short of stunning. Lopez turned 50 this year, and looks about 32. She takes control of the film, and requests, makes that demands, your attention. Constance Wu continues to be revelation, with a layered and often moving performance that shows off dramatic chops not seen by many of her fans. In supporting roles, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhardt also put in scene-stealing performances. Cardi B and Lizzo have nothing but glorified cameos. In other roles, Julia Stiles, Mercedes Ruehl, Madeline Brewer, Mette Towley, and Tommy Hatto are effective. On the whole, ‘Hustlers’ is a stylishly sexy crime drama that is both smart and terrifically entertaining.
Directed – Lorene Scafaria
Rated – R
Run Time – 110 minutes