Bolstered by rich character drama and stunning star performances, Hustlers delivers electrifying and empowering entertainment through the female gaze.
Hollywood has released plenty of movies based on true stories that went on to become awards season favorites, and the industry has taken a look at sex workers in various fiction and documentary films; rarely - if ever - have these two kinds of movie crossed paths. But that's exactly what Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers is, a cross section of grounded real life drama with a mythologizing depiction of the strippers-turned-scammers who drugged rich men to take their money. Hustlers adapts the Robin Hood-style story "The Hustlers at Scores" written by Jessica Pressler and published by New York Magazine in 2015 about the real women who become more fictionalized in Scafaria's film. Bolstered by rich character drama and stunning star performances, Hustlers delivers electrifying and empowering entertainment through the female gaze.
Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu), a stripper trying to support her grandmother who becomes friends with a veteran at her club, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona teaches Destiny the ins and outs of how to make the most money by differentiating between the Wall Street types who come in. However, when the financial crisis of 2008 hits and Destiny has a baby, she loses touch with Ramona. When they reunite years later, Destiny joins Ramona's group of girls who help reel in clients for the strip club. Along with Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Destiny and Ramona build an empire of their own by drugging men they perceive to be rich and maxing out their credit cards. However, as Ramona grows more reckless and Destiny more wary of the operation, it's unclear how long they can go without being caught - and what will become of their friendship when the dust settles.
Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) wrote and directed Hustlers, and she excels in telling a story about sex workers that never once objectifies or degrades them. Certainly, there's plenty of female nudity and sexual situations in Hustlers, but the women are not positioned as something to be ogled, their nudity and how they wield their sexuality is simply part of their job. And that distinction between object and person, especially in a story about strippers, is key to Hustlers' success. In the hands of another writer-director, Hustlers could've easily been a lesser movie with little insight into what makes these characters tick. But Scafaria's script is more focused on the multifaceted people who created this Robin Hood scam, and that story includes just as much platonic female friendship as sex. However, while much of Hustlers' success as a film comes down to the female gaze, it would do Scafaria a disservice to imply any woman could've done what she did. Scafaria's script is whip smart, playing with form in a way we rarely see in films based on true stories, and her direction makes Hustlers an absolutely gorgeous movie to watch.
Just as important as Scafaria's contributions to Hustlers are stars Lopez and Wu, whose dazzling performances bring the complicated women of Ramona and Destiny to life. Their friendship, and all the messy emotions that come along with it due to their operation, forms the emotional core of Hustlers. And with such talented actors as Lopez and Wu at the center, Ramona and Destiny's friendship is devastatingly compelling, lending real heart to Hustlers. That wouldn't be possible if not for Lopez and Wu. For her part, Lopez turns in the kind of deftly nuanced performance that should put her in awards contention, while Wu is similarly strong as Hustlers' de facto protagonist. Further, Hustlers sells itself on its considerably talented cast of female performers - including Cardi B and Lizzo - and there are plenty of moments in which the other female stars shine, including Palmer and Reinhart. But Hustlers is Lopez and Wu's movie and they're undeniable powerhouses in the lead roles.
As is the case of many true story adaptations, there are moments when the pacing of Hustlers lags, and Scafaria's script struggles to keep the momentum of the story going when the real life tale itself slows down. For the most part, though, Scafaria and Hustlers are able to overcome these brief stumbling moments by zipping quickly through key, if uninteresting events (like Destiny's relationship with her daughter's father). Ultimately, it all serves the main story and characters of Hustlers, coming together to form an excellently crafted and acted movie. It's such a unique spin on an age-old premise (strippers as modern day Robin Hood) that there's an easy entry point for most any viewer. And Hustlers fulfills on its premise, providing escapist glamor and revenge in its heist story, while offering a more captivating experience as the film dives deep into its characters, particularly the friendship between Ramona and Destiny.
As such, Hustlers is an enjoyable movie experience and definitely worth checking out, even for those who may not have been intrigued by the trailers, which don't do the film justice (likely because it's such a mix of genres and so atypical, it's tough to sell as only one kind of movie). Though Hustlers may not be a typical true story drama, no doubt taking some liberties for the sake of entertainment, it should be in awards season contention - not only for Scafaria's work on the script and as director, but for Lopez's exceptional performance. Hustlers may reel viewers in with its promise of fun heist capers (which it totally delivers, along with more humor than audiences may expect), but they'll stay for the truly riveting drama and honest heart at the center of this scammer story.
Hustlers is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 109 minutes long and rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!
- Hustlers (2019) release date: Sep 13, 2019