2019, R, 104 mins.
Constance Wu as Destiny / Jennifer Lopez as Ramona / Julia Stiles as Elizabeth / Keke Palmer as Mercedes / Lili Reinhart as Annabelle / Lizzo as Liz / Cardi B as Diamond
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria
Outside of the promises of cheap and sensationalistic titillation offered up in its pre-release trailers, I really had no desire to screen HUSTLERS, a fact based crime drama that just also happens to be set in the world of strip clubs.
Based on a New
Yorker magazine article by Jessica Pressler, this Lorene Scafaria directed
effort tells a story of a group of intrepid and ambitious minded strippers
in the Big Apple that decide to drug and steal money from the city's most
wealthy and elite males that had been visiting their clubs and taking
advantage of them and the disadvantaged for far too long.
I've read some reviews that have labeled HUSTLERS as "GOODFELLAS
with G-strings," which is somewhat laughable, but also kind of apt.
Considering the tawdriness of the inherent subject matter, I was
refreshingly surprised by how shrewdly written and well acted Scafaria's
true life heist film was, not to mention the fact that it shows star
Jennifer Lopez at arguably her best on-screen form - in more ways than one
- in decades.
Plus, the film is
oftentimes staggeringly well shot and assembled by Scafaria (who
previously made the terrific, but mostly forgotten NICK
AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST and the criminally underrated
apocalyptic comedy SEEKING
A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD), even though there are
definitely times when it's too ostentatiously stylish (like an elongated
music video) for its own good. Hell,
even HUSTLER's bravura opening shot - all done in one long unbroken
tracking shot traversing from back stage areas through dressing rooms and
finally onto the stage amidst a large strip club crowd - has obvious
Scorsese-ian echoes through and through.
Despite its derivative aesthetic, the film opens with an
unqualified and confident bang and does a pretty bang on job of fully
immersing viewers in this colorful world.
This story introduction is juxtaposed with scenes in the present
that feature the film's protagonist, Dolores (aka Destiny, played by CRAZY
RICH ASIAN's Constance Wu), who's giving a long interview to an
investigative journalist (Julia Styles) about her time working as a
stripper both pre and post 2008 financial crisis.
We learn through
these interview segments - which dive back and forth into flashbacks -
that Destiny started her stripper career at a club called Moves to make
ends meet and support her sick and elderly mother, but her lack of on
stage coordination and slick dance moves made her an outcast very early
on. Her life changes forever
when one of the heavy hitting veteran earners of the club in Ramona
(Lopez) takes notice of this greenhorn and decides to recruit her under
her wing to teach her all of the ins and outs of their vocation (part of
her tutelage involves doing erotic dancing in private rooms for Wall
Street hooligans that shell out thousands per night).
Within no time, things start to financially turn around for Destiny
and life couldn't be better, that is until the disastrous stock market
crash of 2008, which all but puts a stoppage on business at the club.
With her career
grinding to a depressing halt, Destiny and Ramona decide that they must go
on the offensive with a plan to make quick money and take some jabs at
their affluent customer base that spent every night living the high life
off of them. Their get rich
scheme is simple enough: Party with these clients, get them buzzed enough
to take their edge off, and then finally slip them some drugs to knock
them so that they can make off with their credit cards and run them up to
ungodly levels. The ladies
launch their fiendish plan with some help from fellow down on their luck
strippers Mercedes (Keke Palmar) and Annabelle (Lilli Reinhart), and
initially the first few scores come easily enough, mostly because their
prey are rather easily duped. But
when some of their "customers" start to dispute their credit
card bills and begin talking to the police the ladies start to realize
that their criminal ways will unavoidably catch up with them.
HUSTLERS, to be
fair, has a fair amount of stripper eye candy in it, but Scafaria's script
does an awful lot more with these women than make them mere visual props.
We've seen countless films involving prostitutes and strippers
directed by men, most of which involve these women of the night being
presented with simplistic clichés. But
now, we finally have a stripper centric film written and directed by a
woman, and what's so intrinsically fascinating about Scafaria's approach
to this material is that she spends ample time developing her female
characters as real flesh and blood people with real pains and
insecurities. Yes, they
parade their mostly naked bodies on stage night after night, which most
certainly requires an audacity of spirit (and desperation), but Scarfaria
rarely shows this women as one note victims of economic circumstance.
Plus, we really get a perspective of the workplace environment
behind the scenes and all of the various power struggles contained within,
and it's all handled without resorting to shameful soap opera melodrama.
core of HUSTLERS is with its titular crooks, and the family-like levels of
open support and comradelier that these women share give the film an
authentic heartbeat of genuine dramatic interest.
And the film takes its time introducing and nurturing the
mentor/student relationship that eventually becomes a surrogate
mother/daughter bond between Destiny and Ramona, both of whom have a field
day exacting power over their drunken and drugged up club patrons that
unabashedly - and later against their consent - hand over thousands to
them. That's one of the
inherent ironies at the epicenter of HUSTLERS: These Wall Street leaches
spend their days thinking they have power and influence over their clients
and these women in the clubs, only it's the strippers themselves that
become the dominant power players. In
a way, the strip clubs are the women's own twisted stock market and the
men that all but destroyed the country's financial systems outside of it
become very easy targets of their wrath.
That's kind of why HUSTLERS works so well on multiple levels: It's
an engaging workplace drama, a crime thriller, a reality based cautionary
parable of our fragile financial times, and, yes, a story of sisterhood
being forced to deal with multiple obstacles that impede their
friendships. The fact that
the film is about strippers almost becomes an afterthought.
HUSTLERS contains moments of pure eroticism, especially with Lopez's grand
first scene and entrance in the film, which is one for the proverbial
ages. Her presence in the
film is not just for pure T and A arousal (granted, she's a more than
credible on screen exotic dancer, and at 50-years-old she puts most women
half her age to physical shame). The
role of Ramona is as perfectly tailored to JLo as they come, seeing as she
has a flashy diva personality that Lopez can play in her sleep, but she's
also a brilliantly conniving and ruthlessly cunning con artist that will
stop at nothing to ensure the well being an economic livelihoods of
herself and her stripper sisters. Lopez
has been in some awfully iffy films over the course of the last few
decades, but she gives such a compellingly layered and lived-in
performance in HUSTLERS that is kind of reminds us of the young actress
that was causing critic's heads to turn years ago when she headlined films
like SELINA and OUT OF SIGHT; this is her best work since that time.
One of the negative and unintended side effects of Lopez's outstanding
turn here is that it casts a large shadow over Constance Wu, whose decent
in the film when required, but simply doesn't have the same electrifying
presence that her co-star does here. Wu is a good actress, but her
performance in HUSTLERS seems a bit hesitant instead of convincingly
headstrong, leaving her coming off as being out of her element and
somewhat miscast here.
I was pretty on board with HUSTLERS from its potent opening sections as a shrewdly scripted and consummately acted crime drama that contains surprising psychological depth, but some things held it back from achieving greatness for me. Scafaria seems quite reticent when it comes to moral commentary on what really amounts to the vile and indefensible behavior by Destiny, Ramona, and their heist team. These are good people driven to ruthlessness that, at times, actually endanger the lives of some of their targets. There's a claim to be made that many of these affluent, arrogant, and misogynistic a-holes had it coming to them, but HUSTLERS is perhaps a bit too black and white in portraying the Wall Street club patrons as pure evil and the women that...well...dangerously drugged and stole from them as righteously good. There's simply a bit too much hero worshipping of these female criminal's ill deeds for my liking. Still, HUSTLERS is assuredly well made with real skill, polish, and sensitivity considering its premise and subject matter and shows the anger inducing limits that those downtrodden 99 per centers in society will go to in order to enact revenge on the other one per cent that unfairly hold all of the economic cards. Very few stripper films are as enthrallingly timely and, yes, titillating as HUSTLERS. SHOWGIRLS this ain't.