SHOULD I SEE IT?
One of the bigger surprises of 2019, Hustlers is a terrific film.
Built on the backs of two great performances from Constance Wu and a never-better, believe-the-Oscar-hype turn from Jennifer Lopez.
Lorene Scafaria keeps you guessing, shifts her film into new directions just when you think you have it figured out. Smart, clever, and surprisingly emotional, and adhering fairly close to the true story, Hustlers is a far better film than you think it is.
Those sensitive to the subject matter should stay far away from Hustlers.
Some may find the premise - strip club workers turn to drugging and robbing men through their credit cards during and after the 2008 Recession - to be offensive and not worth the time spent in watching it.
Some have complained that the film makes light of the crimes committed by these women as somehow just and proper, when, in actuality, the realities of what they did was deeply troubling and clearly illegal.
Full disclosure: Hustlers felt to me like a September throwaway.
A random mix of hip-hop artists, female actors - old and new - crashing together in a stylish trailer that seemed to have a crisis of conscience. Is the movie a comedy? A thriller? Is this little more than R-rated, strip club shenanigans or something more tame? Will it empower or admonish its characters? And, I’m sorry, is that Cardi B?
Early on, you realize that writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s third film is better than advertised, a film of female trust and loyalty, the complicated messiness which comes with it, and how sisterhood can originate in some of the most unlikely of places.
Some “strip club movie with J.Lo,” this ain’t. Scafaria has no patience when it comes to these women being seen merely as objects, or otherwise objectified by its audience. Almost instantly, we are swimming in the world these women operate in and the stakes at play feel mighty real.
Based on a rather amazing New York Magazine story of how four strip club performers ventured into a side hustle where they would charge wealthy male clients outrageous amounts of money, after drugging them secretly during a night out on the town, Scafaria builds her movie initially around Destiny (Constance Wu)..
When we meet her, Destiny is one of a handful of new hires at “Moves,” an upscale adult club in Manhattan. Though clientele include men with some of the largest bank accounts in the city, Moves does not pay their dancers. They work for tips and the club managers all have their hands out. Dancers tip the DJs, they tip the operations managers, they tip any male co-workers they ask for advice.
Stunned by her meager take home pay, Destiny, dancing to earn money to help her grandmother out of debt, happens upon Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) - delivering a routine which leaves her bathing in money, thrown on stage by dozens of patrons. Destiny is instantly captivated and envious, and desirous of Ramona’s talent and obvious success. Soon, they become friends - Ramona taking Destiny under her wing and mentoring her on how to score big tips from the richest of clients, defined as those who pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for private sessions in the club’s exclusive private rooms.
Just when we think we know what Hustlers is going to be, Scafaria’s screenplay places Destiny in front of a reporter (Julia Stiles) asking her questions several years in the future. This Destiny is tense, hardened, guarded, and gruff. She pushes back on questions related to Ramona, but continues on with the interview.
By shifting our focus, Scafaria resets our point-of-view and her film always accepts these women for who and where they are. She makes sure that we are in that club’s dressing room, watching women interacting positively, supportive and seldom attacking one another. Backstage, Hustlers is comprised of a family-like group of women of various shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds, seeking strength in one another, and just trying to make enough money to get by.
Again, there is more going on here. And we learn the reporter is really seeking information about the years which followed Destiny and Ramona’s first months spent together as dancers. After the economic recession destroyed the American economy in the fall of 2008, the club’s primary clientele of Wall Street brokers and financial high rollers dissipates. Places like “Moves” are suddenly in profit free-fall, which catapults Destiny out of the business for a time where she attempts to shift directions and start life anew.
But roads lead back to Ramona, and soon Ramona’s conceived of a money-making scheme called “Fishing.” Arranged dates become parties where four women entertain a wealthy male client, spike his drink, and let the credit card do its magic. Destiny buys in, as do fellow dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Rinehart). And soon the quartet are splitting thousands of dollars between themselves. Ramona, ever the savvy businesswoman, cuts Moves into the deal, and a secret wink-wink alliance is formed around duping horny men out of lots and lots of money.
Part of what makes Hustlers such a terrific movie is how we care and understand the nuances of a world few films and storytellers have taken the time to genuinely explore. Largely, this guidance is provided through the battle-tested Ramona, who, in the hands of Jennifer Lopez, finds the actor delivering the finest performance of her storied career.
A matriarch to not only Destiny and her new business partners, but to the dozens of women who have walked through Moves’ doors, Ramona is protector and guardian angel to all she meets. Ramona becomes very real to us, and Lopez infuses a genuineness that finds her disappearing into this hard-charging, loving, compassionate, but addictive personality who allows her love and desire to make money overtake her sensibilities from time to time.
Wu provides great counterbalance with Lopez. Though the framing device might feel tired and a bit overused, Wu is at her best zip-cutting lines with Stiles’ targeted questioning. The chemistry Ramona shares with Destiny is crucial to the film, and both actors are given ample ground and space to bring powerful, emotional context to everything they experience together and apart from each other.
The supporting cast is great, if a bit underused. Cardi B, hip-hop star on-the-rise Lizzo, Trace Lysette and others, lead an ensemble of extended cameos. Even R&B stalwart Usher has a tremendous walk-on midway through the film.
Scafaria, through the cinematography of Todd Benhazi and brilliant editing from Kayla Emter, allows us the chance to peel back a curtain into lives people dismiss or take for granted everyday. We are shown the horrific ways these women are treated by men, who believe they have the privilege and power to ask for and expect to receive whatever they believe they can find a price for.
Funny, dramatic when appropriate, and surprisingly moving in a bittersweet, emotional conclusion, Hustlers flips perceptions and conventions and is one of the many great cinematic surprises of 2019.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Rinehart, Julia Stiles, Wai Ching Ho, Emma Batiz, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, Lizzo, Usher, Gerald Gillum, Mette Townley, Marcy Richardson, Mercedes Ruehl, Devin Ratray, Frank Whaley, Steven Boyer, Jon Glaser.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Written by: Lorene Scafaria
Adapted from the New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler
Release Date: September 13, 2019