Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has gone above and beyond with Hustlers. The movie could have been a winner in a sense, just by leaning heavily on the most simplistic description of the true story – “strippers seek revenge” – but instead, Scafaria fully embraces the cinematic appeal of the scenario while also challenging viewers to read between the lines and really understand the characters’ motivations. That makes Hustlers the complete package, a highly entertaining crowd pleaser with compelling subtext.
Based on Jessica Pressler’s article “The Hustlers at Scores,” the movie centers on Constance Wu’s Destiny. In an effort to make a living and support her grandmother, Destiny makes the move to a big time strip club in Manhattan. Trouble is, she can’t compete with the club’s veteran dancers – that is until the best of the bunch, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), takes Destiny under her wing. They hit it big working together and enjoy living large until the economy collapses in 2008. No one’s spending the big bucks at the clubs anymore so Ramona and Destiny start up an operation to force their clients’ hands by drugging them and “encouraging” them to swipe their credit cards.
Hustlers is seductive. Deep down you know what Destiny and Ramona are doing is all sorts of wrong, but the family they create to run the operation is hugely charming and it’s highly entertaining watching them get away with it. Hustlers doesn’t skip a beat jumping from one infectious moneymaking montage to the next, often backed by the catchiest hits of the 2000s. Just as Destiny admires Ramona, so does the viewer courtesy of a commanding performance from Lopez paired with visuals that don’t ogle, but revere. The athleticism on display in one particular scene is wildly impressive and Lopez imbues Ramona with poise and charm for days.
Wu, on the other hand, is the viewer’s relatable way in. Often captured with handheld camerawork, you’re given a significant amount of access to Destiny, essentially taking this wild ride right alongside her, following her as she walks through the club and sharing her POV idolizing Ramona. It becomes a journey of great range and Wu sells it all. She goes from innocent newcomer to being swept up in the thrill of making the big bucks to weighing whether or not to stand up for herself. Destiny is the anchor and you can’t help but to be swayed by the situation right along with her; the draw to Ramona, the thrill of taking control of her career, and the heartbreak of watching it all fall to pieces.
Scafaria makes it difficult to dismiss their operation even though it’s plain old bad, illegal behavior. There are noble intentions in the mix, like the need to support families, and on top of that, they’ve been taken advantage of. Clients cheat them out of promised cash, the higher-ups at the clubs take a hefty percentage of what they make and even when Destiny attempts to get a job elsewhere, without retail experience, you can’t get a job in retail. The system is working against them in almost every respect. They’re backed into a corner and when a lifeline presents itself, they take it. Can you blame them? It’s not an easy question to answer and that’s one of Hustlers‘ greatest highlights; Scafaria doesn’t force you one way or the other. She hands over all the necessary pieces, including the devastating effect this scheme has on some of their targets, and lets you assess their decisions yourself.
One big thing working in the ladies’ favor? Cast chemistry. Wu and Lopez in particular effortlessly sell a deep love and dedication to one another and then when you add in Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer as Annabelle and Mercedes respectively, you wind up with an unlikely family oozing with warmth and charm. There’s one particular scene in the film that’s flat out idyllic. If only that moment could last forever.
Making Hustlers an even more engaging experience is the narrative structure. We see the main events of Destiny’s story play out in chronological order as she tells them in 2014 to a reporter named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). It gives the film the feeling that Pressler’s original article is coming to life right before your eyes, down to the sound dropping out when Destiny insists on turning off the recorder. The format ups the stakes and enhances Destiny’s perspective tenfold, making her progression throughout the film especially powerful.
Hustlers has everything going for it. It’s brimming with energy, has loads of spot-on comedic beats (Reinhart has one particular recurring joke that lands time and time again), it respects its characters and makes you think. If you’re looking for a great time at the movie theater that also boasts some real artistry and heart, Hustlers is undoubtedly one of the best options of the year.