director: Lorene Scafaria | runtime: 1h 50mins | crime, drama, comedy
Based on the popular New York Times article, it follows the story of a group of strippers who begin making money by drugging Wall Street men and maxing out their credit cards. At the top of this new business are close friends Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).
Films that often walk a fine line usually slip and fall in the biggest way, and this film finds itself walking a number of lines at once. But the beauty of Hustlers is that it never slips, set on the back of people doing bad things, it manages to humanise right down to the core and even become a figure of empowerment. Being led by two powerhouse performances, the group of girls that experience objectification on a daily basis, decide that the solution to their problems is to begin drugging the wealthy business men that frequent their club, and then max out their credit cards. Just one of the many lines this film very cleverly dances along, is the villainy of the act but never of it’s characters.
In the same year a film that very nearly achieves the same goal, but get’s lost in it’s own message, is Joker (2019). But while Arthur Fleck becomes a sociopath, the girls in this film find themselves just as business-savvy as their victims with a lot more street smart to boot. Despite this being the bulk of the film though, the first twenty minutes are dedicated to building the strong foundation between the girls, specifically Ramona and Destiny. Usually strip clubs are portrayed in a demeaning manor, objectifying the dancers and belittling them to props while the people paying are the ones with the power. But as soon as Ramona steps on stage the whole balance is turned on it’s head, being swallowed by a sea of money as she controls the entire room. Maybe that’s the unique stardom of J-Lo at work, or it’s the directors panache, but it works nonetheless and really sets a standard for the rest of the film. Each girl has a problem, a life outside the confines of the club, and it’s a genuine pleasure being introduced to each one.
As the financial crisis of 2008 hits Destiny, now with attitude of her own, she finds herself as a single-mother looking for work. This change in attitude speaks wonders for the talent of Constance Wu, who’s personality and physical change demands so much attention on-screen, shedding any archetype she might have been associated with in her equally wonderful performance in Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Alongside a number of other great performances including Riverdale’s (2017-) Lili Reinhart and a few major musical names, the film boasts quite the bravado and personality. But leading this troupe of women, and the standout along with Constance Wu, is Jennifer Lopez as Ramona.
Pop stars and musicians don’t always have the strongest track record in movies, but in some respect when you have the right role they can be perfect. Take nothing away from the charisma of movie stars but arguably musicians are the embodiment of ‘star power’, think Beyonce, Madonna and people like Elvis Presley, even Usher has a very entertaining moment in this film, all exuding that unknown quality that seemingly changes a room. While Ramona is a character with a big personality, what Jennifer Lopez does is highlight the fragrant power she can hold in a group of people, but also grasp the emotional turmoil between the relationship of Ramona and Destiny. Hustlers perfectly balances her charisma with her ability to act, and in doing so keeps on the same mantra as the film as a whole – being sexy but never overstepping it’s boundaries for the sake of sexiness. With such great depth in both Destiny and Ramona, it’s safe to say that both J-Lo and Constance Wu sell every moment they have together, exuding power and highlighting the fractured nature of both characters so perfectly, it will be no surprise to see their names among the award contenders of the year.
As the movie continues to the peak of it’s criminality and the cracks begin to show, the film yet again finds such balance between character and narrative. Even in the midst of flash-forwards (where Destiny tells her story), the film pushes it’s rise and fall story to a predictable ending, but what’s so important is the characters themselves. The downfall is justified punishment for the crimes they commit but it’s more about the strain on sisterhood that occurs. There is a special moment between Ramona and Destiny where, for the sake of her child and future, Destiny makes a deal with the police and in the face of anger Ramona is completely understanding of that decision. A lesser film would have ended that relationship then and there with a focus on loyalty, but this particular decision is a reflection of both reality and the characters we have come to know and love.
Throughout the film you notice little audiovisual cues that push the films quality even higher, using the muffled noise of a microphone during a scene with a wire, and the cut-off of the voice recorder as Destiny shuts down the interview. These two scenes are examples of how the film is product of reality, and without the back-up of truth it’s important not to presume for entertainment’s sake. Much like Adam McKay did in Vice (2018) with his Shakespearian back and forth, but much less showy. Small details like this make it clear that the creators, as well as their actors, are in full control and have huge respect for the story they are telling.
At it’s core, Hustlers is a study of sisterhood laced with a criminal story, never glorifying what they are doing but rather embraces the empowerment of personality. It has the pulpy excitement as most rise-and-fall movies, but with an incredible amount of heart and ingenuity. There are plenty of standout aspects, but if take anything away from this film let it be the rise of Constance Wu and the second coming of J-Lo.