“This is a story about control” starts the opening scene of Hustlers, as Janet Jackson’s hit plays while we meet Dorothy, now Destiny, (Constance Wu), the apparent new girl at a strip club in New York back in 2007. She is struggling financially to support her grandmother and doesn’t seem particularly entranced by this line of work, but she smiles and does her thing.
Based on the New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers takes no time to get us into the world of exotic dancers and develop the friendship between Destiny and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), undoubtedly the key player and dancer who’s entrance in the film is something to be mentioned for years. Once Destiny sees Ramona, she is entranced by her and automatically is drawn to her. As Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, and her coat, and shows her the ropes of embracing her sexiness and using her charisma to make the work lucrative for her, the film really takes off. Money begins rushing in for the duo, but as soon as the Global Financial Crisis begins, it turns out the Wall Streeters have less to throw around. Desperation drives Ramona to come up with a new plan: microdosing high earners at bars near Wall Street and drag them back to the strip club to drain their cards of cash. It’s a tricky proposition with interesting highs and lows, whilst simultaneously showing Destiny talking to a reporter, relaying the story to her (Julia Stiles).
On the acting front, Jennifer Lopez is superb as Ramona, her own JLo energy coming through Ramona in a way a lot of her recent characterisations have not allowed. The writing of Ramona doesn’t present many opportunities for us to see her insecurities and vulnerabilities that could have catapulted Lopez higher to an Oscar win, but her performance is still incredible. Wu is also in top form, a far cry from her comedic performance in Crazy Rich Asians, where we can see her character arc from innocent bystanders to active criminal, yet still empathise with her actions. Most of all, the bond between the two comes across as genuine and realistic, and you can feel that the characters are more than the sum of their actions, which is hard to portray as an actor when the character is a perpetrator of crime. Cardi B and Lizzo come and go in small bit roles that aren’t greatly memorable, but Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart establish themselves as strong young actresses with comedic timing and charisma. The line up all have perfect chemistry and the weight of Stiles’ acting and her character is another facet of the film that draws out the human side of the story.
Writer and director Lorene Scafaria has clear inspiration from Goodfellas and relies too often on those tropes through much of the story, but it isn’t as entertaining as its uses in I, Tonya. She tries to make a crime drama with sprinkles of comedy throughout, but the long opening shot shows she still has a bit of originality to bring into her style. The soundtrack, a mix of Britney Spears and Lorde is effective and really underlines the scenes they appear. The writing could have been more entertaining and more character arcs could have made the personalities more memorable and brilliant, but it’s still a strong third outing from Scafaria.
Tone is the biggest issue of the film. The front part of the film is fun, addictive and energizing, but loses this after about ⅓ of the film as Destiny settles into domestic life and the story slows down. Unfortunately it takes a while to revive the film from there, but the music certainly helps. Hustler’s ode to music of the time is one of its highlights, as is the inclusion of Usher during another memorable scene early on. Too many montages of shopping remind us of the power of money and how it has transformed these women, but there is still an undercurrent of emotional depth that ebbs and flows during the film.
It’s a classic film about sexuality, social security and financial inequality, but transforms it into a film about the struggles of these individuals and how they “take back” from people who are part of a system that effectively financially ruined a nation. A sibling picture to Magic Mike, another film about the entertainment industry and the real life personalities trying their best to make money despite the post-recession circumstances in the USA.
Yet there isn’t much impartiality throughout, as the film seems to make the defence that these women’s crimes are not that morally bankrupt. Sure there are casualties along the way, but they are the real hustlers and scammers without white collars, taking what they think they deserve and only caring for themselves. The film tries to create a humanistic approach to understanding them with vague backstories that have drawn them to this, but equally doesn’t depict them as very nice or centered people, but rather unlikeable. Scarfaria isn’t wrong, this is a story about the control of these women, but it’s not as empowering as it may come across at times.
Hustlers is really Jennifer Lopez’s film and will be one of her most memorable roles going forward and possibly her best to date. She’s the ringleader and the movie rests on her capable shoulders. But ultimately the film isn’t unlike the characters within: a tease, but also a promise that so much more could come. If only Scafaria explored the characters more and made them more than the sum of their actions.
Jennifer Lopez’s performance is the drawcard and keeps you watching. Constance Wu is due for an Oscar nomination soon. The story is insanely interesting and watching it unfold is engaging.
The never never quite takes off and hits the heights that could be accomplished by these excellent actresses and stranger than fiction story. Also wish it was funnier.
Originally published on Back Row, 25 October, 2019