Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria.
Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B, Mercedes Ruehl, Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Madeline Brewer, Stormi Maya, Tia Barr, Doris McCarthy, Steven Boyer, Vanessa Aspillaga, and Ken Holmes.
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.
There is a chance that you probably think Hustlers is a dumb broad comedy about strippers getting into illegal hijinks, and you would only be half right with that assumption. Luckily, many viewers that do take a chance on this one will come to the realization that it’s regressive and boneheaded logic on their part to instinctively mentally label something involving strippers conning rich people as disposable but potentially entertaining fast-food cinema. Hustlers is intelligent and layered with its presentation of these women and the dynamics that shape their friendships and homegrown scamming business; it’s wolves eating wolves (the struggling dancers exclusively target wealthy and shady Wall Street sharks, summed up as hurt people bringing pain to others), and it’s frenetically captivating consistently introducing and attempting to justify away all kinds of moral shades of gray.
Writer and director Lorene Scafaria crafts what is essentially The Wolf of Wall Street where the filthy rich incapable of staying away from debauchery repeatedly get their own comeuppance from the wits of independently driven strippers looking to prey on them and drain their wallets, in the same manner, they might do to some unlucky schmuck they take advantage of over the phone. There is also the surprising element that a good amount of the story is inspired by real events (Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article on the happenings that transpired once the situation got really nasty), never forgetting that these are real people with relatable and empathetic goals beyond the hustle, whether it be supporting grandma, raising a family, affording lawyers to keep a loved one out of jail, and more. Obviously, seeing as these personalities come from a classy strip club where choice is mandatory for the establishment to thrive, there is a diverse cast here ranging from race, ethnicity, and body type, told with the relevance of minorities rising up against the predominantly white Wall Street that aren’t necessarily keeping them down financially, but playing a scummy game of deception that these women could play better.
The ringleaders of this ever-expanding operation are Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), both of whom share the same ambitions. Ramona is a ferocious go-getter with endless knowledge on how to manipulate sleazy men for her benefit, and years of experience has made her confident and assured (it’s a supporting turn from Jennifer Lopez that is nothing short of outstanding, especially as it grows increasingly complex towards the finale). She decides to quite literally take Destiny under her wing (symbolically visualized as inside her fur), lecturing her on how to… ahem, drain the clock and not the cock.
It could be argued that they are still taking advantage of these financially loaded clients, but it’s only after the stock market crash and its subsequent negative effects on the strip club when they get truly desperate to maintain their independence, introducing more calculated plans fixated on the drugging and robbing of the seedy well-off men that are no longer willing to make it rain, so to speak. What ensues is a big score that, to them, is so exciting and leads to such comfortable living, that their actions continue based on materialism and greed. Wisely, Lorene Scafaria never forgets about the lesser fortunate family members benefiting from all the illegal activity (although some more time with a few specific characters might have allowed one or two moments to resonate more emotionally), which is paramount to keeping the audience rooting for people that can honestly be downright unlikable at times. Hustlers doesn’t just rightfully validate sex work, it also shows that, just like anything involving money, it can spark moral corruption.
The script also tackles why the majority of these victims never spoke up, explaining it away as shame. Hustlers cuts back and forth between the past and the present (there is also narration and an elaborate long take around the entire strip club reminiscent of the tracking camera work in Goodfellas, just to further drive the Martin Scorsese comparisons home), but it should be obvious to anyone reading this review that eventually someone does blow this up into a scandal. Being the exceptionally talented filmmaker she is, Lorene Scafaria is also able to elicit hypocrisy; we feel bad for these people that have had thousands of dollars stolen from them, but it’s difficult to resist laughing with smaller characters, laughing at how these guys let it happen, effectively shaming them in the process. Apparently, it’s so embarrassing that the whistleblower’s name is actually bleeped out whenever mentioned. It’s as good a window as any into the state of mind of why anyone abused from sex working or sexual assault would do their best to suck it up and privately fight through the trauma.
On top of that, it’s also uncomfortably hilarious watching these women make a number of mistakes (there’s a trip to the hospital that resembles something out of the lowbrow comedy Rough Night from a few years back, except far better executed than the entirety of that awful movie) and overbearingly horny men taken down a peg. For whatever reason, the third act is rushed (there’s a critical subplot that feels as if it was chopped down to size in the editing room for time), but the complicated friendship of Destiny and Ramona is always at the center, and the former is given a moral consciousness that is one of many significant reasons such an ugly story has heart seeping through. Constance Wu is equally impressive and deserving of the awards conversation Jennifer Lopez has recently taken by storm. Respect the hustlers.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com