Hustlers was written and directed by Lorne Scarfaria, based on the New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by journalist Jessica Pressler, and stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a young high-school dropout attempting to make ends meet and take care of her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) by working at a strip club in the city, the second she’s been employed by, due to the first not bringing in enough cash and having an overall more sour reputation. The events of the story are recounted through an interview with Pressler (played in the film by Julia Stiles) as she talks to Destiny about her time working at the second club, and more specifically, working with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). After a series of less than successful clients yield lackluster results for Destiny, Ramona decides to take her under her wing, showing her moves and introducing her to some of her regular clients, a murderer’s row of Wall Street higher-ups with more than enough money to spend and an appetite for spending it on pretty girls in little clothing. The two soon form a small team with some of the other employees, and following the market crash of 2008, they begin to turn the tables on some of their wealthier clients, ringing them for every dollar they have. But how far is too far when you’re dealing with Wall Street criminals, and what happens when working people pay the price for vengeance? The film also stars Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B.
When the trailer for Hustlers dropped in mid-July, I was skeptical about the film for a number of reasons; for one, movies about strippers rarely shake out to actually be compelling narratives, and if there are any that have fared well previously, they’ve likely been buried by the annals of cinematic history due to how infamously bad the bad ones actually were – the bad are remembered, and the not-so-bad are forgotten. However, the trailer seemed like it had a little something extra the others were all missing, something I couldn’t quite tap into or put my finger on, so in viewing the trailer as it played in front of other movies I attended, I had it in my head that this could go either way. Hustlers would either be the stripper movie everyone rallied around to demonstrate how good they can really be if handled well, or it would be yet another in a long line of examples to show why no one makes movies about strippers (in short, it would suck). My second reason for doubting whether this film could be as good as it looked had to do with Jennifer Lopez; don’t get me wrong, I didn’t doubt she could act (after all, so many reviews mentioned “Out of Sight” that I’m sure she’s more than proven herself in the movie world before this), but each film I’d seen her in previously ranged anywhere from decent to straight-up awful. Putting it as lightly as I can, I was cautiously optimistic, nervous that the marketing would outpace the film in quality. Time and time again in 2019, I’ve been proven wrong by a number of films I expected to be duds, but none have surprised me so brazenly and confidently as Hustlers has now done.
There are some movies this year that I expected to be trash that ended up actually being pretty good (Dora and Kid Who Would Be King among them), but none have come so hot out of the gate, so heavy in their momentum, and so surefire in their own quality as Hustlers has, announcing a brand-new, bold, fire-brandishing filmmaking voice in Lorne Scarfaria, who wields this film like the gender-flipped answer to Goodfellas with Jennifer Lopez as her Trojan horse, fashioning a secret weapon of a movie that sneaks up on you until you realize this is nothing like what you might’ve been expecting, and there’s almost no way it can get better…until it does. Sure, I didn’t expect Hustlers to be outright awful (although there’s certainly precedent for that), but I definitely didn’t expect to find it to be as great as it is. This film is a remarkable achievement not just for Scarfaria, but for all involved, and re-cements the world of stripping as not just one too-seldom explored in the cinematic medium, but one unfairly marginalized both by Hollywood and the world at large when in reality, there’s so much more to the life of women who take their clothes off for money than anyone, including myself, has given much thought to; it details in more than a few how hard these women work to provide for people they care about, and protect each other in the process (there’s even an extended segment about one of the employees being thrown out of her house by her parents just for working there, a tragic aspect of stripper life few films would even deign to glance at). Put simply, this is not just a fun, clever, smart, sexy crime drama with a bunch of pretty girls doing fantastic work – it’s an important film in the way it resurrects the conversation around the marginalization and exploitation of sex workers, particularly strippers. Scarfaria has directed a couple of films before, but this is her greatest work by far, and now she adds that resurrection to her list of accomplishments and the piles of acclaim coming her way.
Setting aside the performances for a second, each of these characters in dynamic and three-dimensional in their actualizations, and many of them truly do feel like a sisterhood, or as J-Lo says, a family. And when this family gets together, it’s fun watching them hang out. I actually don’t think there was a more entertaining sequence in the film than those taking place with all the women hanging out outside the strip club (although the strip club scenes were entertaining, one of J-Lo’s in particular becoming instantly iconic the moment it’s set on screen). In that vein, Hustlers pulls of somewhat of a minor miracle in knowing what makes the best movies about “dirty” things like crime, stripping, drugs, etc, work – it’s all about the characters. Such a simple thing, it seems, and yet so few have actually been able to pull this off that when this film did, I was close to jumping up out of my seat when the credits rolled to see if the 4K home release was available for pre-order yet.
But, lest you think I wouldn’t end up mentioning them, performances are great, and special credit has to be given to Constance Wu, who’s lead two films in the last two years that could not be more different (Crazy Rich Asians being the other), easily straddling the line between both with a range I haven’t seen out of any actress in this movie for a long time. She really does great work here, and while I’m not confident in saying it might be a career-best for Wu (largely due to not having followed her tv career, and only knowing her from these two films), I am absolutely certain that this will go on her resume as one of the proudest films of her cinematic tenure. She is the centerpiece, and she grabs your attention with every second she’s on screen. The same can be said for Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, the latter pulling off a performance of particularly shocking variety for those who believed her Riverdale screen-time was all she had to give. Both of them are really good here, and while Palmer wasn’t given as much to do as I would have liked, she owns what she’s given, and make no apologies for it; she knows exactly how to pull of a character that stand out from the background, and after a little while, I began to want more of her in every frame. In fact, Hustlers’ greatest failure may be that it doesn’t feature enough Keke Palmer. Cardi B and Lizzo also aren’t in it as much as one might expect from their names being on the poster, but they make good use of the time they get, especially the latter.
The true scene-stealing masterclass, though, comes courtesy of Jenny from the block herself. No, she’s not the lead, but this is ultimately her movie, and she walks away with practically all of it. I don’t exaggerate when I say I’ve never seen Jennifer Lopez this good, and if she re-appears in January with a Supporting Actress nomination to her name, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised (though a win is still tenuous with most of the expected Oscar-contending films yet to be released). Hustlers is her vehicle more than anyone else’s, and she drives it like a delicately crafted, expertly honed hot rod – confident, but careful. Not once does she step over the line into over-performing, but neither does her fire ever calm down or peter out for even one second, and her performance here has to be seen to be believed. I’m not convinced there’s any other way to put it: J-Lo is a tour-de-force powerhouse in this film; if the Oscars were tomorrow, I’d hand her the award right now. She really is that. fucking. good.
Hustlers might be the biggest surprise of the year so far for me, not only because it’s much better than I ever expected it could be, but also because it’s straight-up one of the best films of the year, and getting to say that in mid-September is always a gamble (though not as big a gamble as this film took, and it paid off in spades). Whether or not Oscar chances are something to be had for the film itself remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see this on plenty of Top 10 lists at the end of 2019; hell, it might even be on mine. I don’t think I can sing this movie’s praises, its director’s praises, or J-Lo’s praises enough. Lorne Scarfaria directed a stellar ensemble cast with an awards-caliber performance from one of our greatest actresses that we haven’t seen this good in a long time, and boldly announces that she has arrived to make movies about women, for women, where the marginalized and the unfairly shunned are not just the protagonists, but three-dimensional human beings with a lot of story to tell. And it’s one hell of a story.
I’m giving “Hustlers” a 9.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.