Jacob Richardson | 9/10/2019
A fun, funny, engrossing female led drama that never loses sight of its central conceit around female friendship.
When Destiny (Constance Wu) moves to the bright lights of NYC, she does so with a dream of independence. Working in a strip club, she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and is taken by her confidence, capability and, above all else, her seemingly unstoppable ability to attract money. Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, and teaches her the ropes. Together, they spend a year on top of the world; that is, until the GFC cripples the industry and Destiny leaves to raise her child. A couple of years later, Destiny splits with her partner, and finds herself a single mother with no option but to return to the club - only this time, with a new financial landscape, she can’t make ends meet like she used to. Ramona, who is still there, gives her in on a new gambit, and together with Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) they start drugging unsuspecting men and reaping the cash rewards. As their cons become ever more grand and daring, the foursome find themselves increasingly in trouble with the law, until it all comes crumbling down around them.
Directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers could easily be mistaken from trailers and posters as some sort of male fantasy feature. But in focusing the tale on the relationship between Destiny and Ramona, a sort of mentor/mentee or mother/daughter relationship in many respects, Scafaria manages to avoid having this feel too superficial or sexy. Some of this is undoubtedly down to her avoidance of the male gaze; this never feels gratuitous or sleazy, except when she wants you to see the sleaziness of the patrons (which probably also helps that tone). Instead, this comes across as smart, pacy and exciting.
Both Wu and Lopez give excellent performances, with Lopez in particular doing some of her best work in years (if not decades). Together they form a formidable duo. No one can doubt their power when they strut in slow motion into yet another bar (and are reintroduced as sisters), but the strength of the acting here is most on show in the quieter moments between these two; the grief-stricken hug at a funeral, the diner scene when Destiny returns to the club, or the angry hug of betrayal at the end. Together they elevate this film into a solid dramatic piece.
The supporting cast tends to come and go, making varying levels of impression along the way. Reinhardt and Palmer register, but don’t have a huge amount to do or a character arc to speak of. Julia Stiles, as the reporter who brought this piece to the public consciousness, does well in a largely thankless role. Cardi B feels out of place, and the rest of the cast tend to fade into the background. That is largely, however, because this is really a two-hander between Wu and Lopez, and the rest is just window dressing.
Visually, Hustlers is frequently impressive, particularly when dealing with the strip club itself where neon hues shine and each room has a distinct personality. It becomes a little more banal when we cut to Ramona’s apartment or somewhere else in the city, but never feels less than authentic; a visual aesthetic that reminds you this story is based on a true story, and was sourced from a New York Times article.
The strongest testament to the quality of Hustlers is that, by the end, you sort of wish it kept going. Part of that is down to the central relationship between the two leads, and part is down to Scafaria’s direction. She never demonises either party in this transactional relationship that turned fraudulent, and in doing so she keeps this light enough to be enjoyable, while also true enough to be enlightening and disturbing.
Hustlers is a bunch of fun, but hides beneath its neon-soaked, scantily clad exterior a strong story of female friendship in the face of male aggression, coupled with an insight into the secondary ripple effects of the GFC.