THE STORY – Inspired by a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler that went viral, former strip club employees band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.
THE CAST – Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo & Cardi B
THE TEAM – Lorene Scafaria (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
By Kt Schaefer
”Hustlers” is unlike anything you will see in theaters and not just because it’s a movie about strippers fleecing Wall Street execs after the Great Recession. Director/Writer Lorena Scafaria takes this complicated true story and creates a compelling tale of friendship, a commentary on American society, and explores the intersection of capitalism and sexuality with a fresh eye and unexpected honesty. She portrays friendships between women in a realistic and welcome way that allows the women in the film to be sexual, but not sex objects. While a director and screenwriter set the basis for a film, the actors bring it to life and Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu are undeniably amazing as Ramona and Destiny, each adding their own personalities to the film resulting in something that feels genuine and relatable.
The film is based on a Vice article (although heavily adapted) and uses that conceit to tell its story. Destiny (Constance Wu) is interviewed by reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) and throughout the film, she describes the twists and turns of a dire tale of crime, seduction, manipulation, and most of all friendship. Destiny first appears on screen at the start of her career at Moves, a high-profile strip club for the rich and mighty in New York in 2007. She makes friends with the queen of the club Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who agrees to take Destiny under her wing and all too quickly the two become inseparable. They use their skills to capture the attention of Wall Street all-stars and begin to rake in cash. Things are great and as the two women embrace the possibilities of their income, they also deepen their friendship. But when the 2008 recession hits the two women and the friends made over the course of their careers at Move are required to go to extreme lengths to maintain their hefty income.
This kind of story makes it easy to veer into exploitation, but Scafaria neatly avoids this pitfall and dives into the humanity of these women by showing them at their best and worst. Ramona and Destiny experience the highs and lows of success and despair throughout the film and regardless of where they are the viewer is allowed to experience it right alongside them. Whereas some would take every opportunity to showcase the bodies of these women, Scafaria instead focuses on their faces allowing the audience to connect with the characters instead of feeling removed from them. In a scene of Destiny and Ramona practicing pole dancing, neither poses her body in a sexy way, they relax into themselves and the highlight of the scene is the fun bonding that they experience instead of the fancy tricks. This is not to say that women in this film aren’t sexy. They most certainly are. It’s just that their sexiness is based on their full ownership of their sexuality and personhood instead of relying on the perspective of outsiders.
Jennifer Lopez has been acting for years, but she has long struggled to get the recognition she deserves for her skill and “Hustlers” is the perfect showcase for her talents. She embraces the mixed morals of her character Ramona and is equally good at being a determined entrepreneur as she is at being the mother figure to the group of women she gathers around her. Constance Wu doesn’t stand out quite as much, but her more subtle performance as the driven and at times desperate Destiny is just as powerful when it hits the emotional high points. The side characters and cameo performances, particularly Cardi B and Lizzo, add a rich background that makes the world of this film feel fully fleshed out.
While “Hustlers” is fun to watch and impressively performed it also happens to be incredibly well crafted. Scafaria’s poignant script paired with the beautiful cinematography of Todd Banhazl and a soundtrack that runs the gamut from rap to pop to classical to a perfectly used Fiona Apple song all serves to create a world for these characters that enhances each scene. It doesn’t hit every story beat and many will have problems with its sexual nature and refusal to portray these women as bad people due to their actions, but “Hustlers” isn’t interested in giving viewers a black and white perspective on the world. It explores the shades of gray that so many people live in and dares to challenge viewers to expand their thinking about who we should view as the villain in this story without becoming overtly political. “Hustlers” is a rare film that creates fully realized female characters in a fascinating story that never shies away from the deeper implications of its narrative all of which combines to make it one of the most unique and enjoyable films I expect to see in 2019.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Amazing performances by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in a challenging and unexpected story that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. Excellent cinematography and editing along with a confident directorial style enhances this wonderful film, bringing it up yet another level.
THE BAD – It doesn’t quite hit all the story beats and some viewers will be turned off by the overt sexuality and difficult moral questions the film poses.