A film review by Craig J. Koban December 19, 2019


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. 

The emotional 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. 

But, obviously, 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. 

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