Director: Lorene Scafaria Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart Running Time: 110 minutes
The strip club is a common port of call in the crime film, but it’s more typically shown as a treat for the men doing the crime. It’s a backdrop for partying during ‘the good times’, a sign of a movie crook’s dollar-raining hubris and sleaze. It’s shown as a place for men to flex their power, exude their control, revel in their success at playing the game. Be they mafia men or white-collar creeps, a movie may tut or titillate with them as they celebrate their ill-gotten gains surrounded by faceless, lifeless dancing girls. Based on the article The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers shifts the focus to the strippers themselves, removing the male gaze and revealing the complex, insightful and engaging characters underneath, while showing up their marks as the “mostly rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men” in the process. In the cut-throat world of capitalism, it’s hustlers all the way up, or as Jennifer Lopez bluntly but perfectly puts it; “It’s all a strip club. You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance”.
While the story of Hustlers is relayed in a framing device to Julia Stiles as a present-day probing journalist, it kicks off in the early 00s, with Destiny (Constance Wu) narrating from her she beginnings working at a booming Manhattan strip club. Quickly she’s taken under the wing of the club’s top star, the glamorous and magnetic Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez, and onstage or off-the-clock Ramona is a canvas for Lopez to show the charisma too often underused or ignored on screen. From the moment she walks on stage and Fiona Apple(!) hits on the soundtrack, she’s in command of the screen, the one wielding the real power while the Wall Street crowd toss their singles, and Scafaria and Wu’s skills are both confirmed alongside in reaction to Lopez’s strengths. Character introductions are such an important opportunity for a film to make a statement about its themes, drive its story and set its tone, and the first dance with Destiny in Hustlers is an all-timer in this regard, J-Lo seizing control of this film and never letting go even with co-stars on top form. Confident and commanding as she dances, Ramona is seen by the camera not with lust or envy, but with the awe-struck eyes of Destiny. Moments later Destiny finds her new-idol on the roof, sneaking a cigarette while she lounges in a massive fur coat. Being an exotic dancer may not be the kind of thing you want “as long as you can remember”, but here we see the exact moment Destiny wants to be, or be around, what Ramona is, and we understand why perfectly. Supported by fun supporting performances from the likes of Cardi B and Lizzo (and building to a gloriously OTT cameo from another pop star), Constance Wu conveys both the exhilaration and the affection she finds in her new life.
What’s striking as Lopez develops as a mentor and best friend to her protegee is the genuine support in their relationship, and the relativity of their success. Ramona and Destiny are making that money, yes, but it’s trickled down from richer and more financially secure men. It affords them pretty nice places to live, rather than impossible mansions, it allows them to support their families rather than trophies and hangers-on, when they shop for designer bags and sip champagne, the point is in the time spent time together, rather than an ostentatious flaunting of wealth. In a dog-eat-dog world, true connection can be its own defense, its own privilege, or both – Lopez and Wu’s chemistry is perfectly calibrated, carrying the film and sweeping the audience along for the ride. Then the 2008 financial crisis hits, and beyond the control of any of the girls the good times stop rolling.
Now with less money to go around, the girls at the club have to play dirtier to get their share, mixing ket and MDMA to make their marks loose with both their memories and their credit cards. Scafaria understands and conveys the insight in The Hustlers at Scores with precision – Scorsese comparisons have been easily and readily made but the Wolf of Wall Street could fuck ordinary people over at a distance to make more money than he could ever know what to do with. Here the girls have to get up close and personal and reduce these guys to incoherent messes to make just enough money to do exactly what they want. Neither glorifying or moralising, Hustlers is clear about the consequences of its characters crimes while understanding and showing why they make their choices. Better still, understanding and showing why they don’t really have many chances; Ramona and Destiny are judged by society out of better characters, judged by men as objects that might age out of their usefulness or fail to function as demanded, they’re living on a fine line between fancy apartments and being unable to support the people closest to them. Under that pressure, mistakes get made, the characters make fun good moves and inevitable wrong ones, its propulsive, incisive and envigorating viewing. In the crime-centred second half, top comedic support from Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart and Madeline Brewer as accomplices provide levity while things grow more serious between the leads. Often a promising sign of a great film is a deep bench in the casting department, and even beyond the billed stars Hustlers keeps throwing out gems: Wai Ching Ho (of Netflix’s Marvel shows) as Destiny’s beloved grandmother, Transparent‘s Trace Lysette as a dancer with a jealous fella, an Oscar-winner with a bit part with Mercedes Ruehl as the club’s matron, Home Alone’s Buzz (!!) as one of the patrons, his ludicrously large home both a background gag and a mic drop of the film’s message.
The needle drops are on-point, the lighting is bomb and there’s no moment wasted as we grow to care for, worry for and wary of these characters. It’s a well-considered and warm take on the criminal ‘family’, but not an overly sentimental one. Ramona becomes a mother figure to Destiny, and does so out of genuine love for her, all the same, any mother or father can knock it out of the park as a parent and still end up letting you down due to factors outside of their control. Hustlers is a story all about power plays and power sharing, and it tells its story of who uses power, how and why better than most movies this year. There’s a sense, here, that rewatches could well fast track this film to classic status among 21st century crime capers. With must-see performances from Lopez and Wu, and frenetic and fiery direction, Hustlers works hard for the money and earns every penny.(5 / 5)