‘Hustlers’ Review

As cultural critics on the Internet spend their time debating the effects of Joker on mass audiences, it’s time we discuss America’s fascination with villains. Perhaps tracing back to our days as renegade criminals looking to overthrow our government in the 1700s, perhaps out of guilt over the atrocities we committed to minorities over the years, or even out of a biological need to watch the powerful get overthrown through treachery and violence, Americans have always cheered for the antihero, figures of chaos battling a far-more-corrupt system. In Bonnie and Clyde, teenagers caught under a corrupt government’s thumb cheered as two lovesick kids overthrew banks throughout the Midwest. In The Godfather and Goodfellas, the poor watched in awe as beaten-down immigrants embraced violence as a way of rising above their enforced stations. And in The Big Short, audiences were given a smart, insightful look at a group of outsiders screwing over Wall Street in the only way the system would allow – gambling. In Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, a group of diverse misfit women combined sex appeal, wit, and spunk to rip off the men that had objectified them and scammed others for decades – and it has resulted in one of the most joyfully exciting films of the year.

In 2007, a young woman named Dorothy (Constance Wu) enters the world of New York stripping to help pay off her grandmother’s debts. Now known as Destiny, she finds herself lost and unsure in a world of sexist, racist Wall Street brokers, greedy bouncers, and unsure in her abilities to both dance and seduce. All of this changes when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a confident, powerful former model and stripper, who brings her fellow dancers together into a tight-knit family. Ramona teaches Destiny how to dance, how to flirt, and more importantly, how to game the system to convince the men to spend more than they were originally willing to pay. Fast forward a few years, and the women have been knocked down a few pegs – thanks to the recession, the women have lost everything, while the men who once spent thousands on them have retreated to bars after getting caught with their pants down one too many times. With options limited, Destiny and Ramona come up with a surefire scheme that will line their pockets while taking revenge on the men who wrecked the economy. After meeting rich men in bars, the women would get them completely hammered while remaining sober themselves (they would later resort to drugging the men to speed up the process). They would then lead them to the strip club to run up exorbitant bills in exchange for a finders’ fee from the owners. Along with fellow stripers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the scheme brings the women together – and splits them apart – through the power of family, friendship, and crime.

Hustlers works because it follows in the famous steps of crime films past. In order to inspire audiences to cheer for protagonists steeped in crime (as opposed to despising them, like Taxi Driver), you have to both make your protagonists likable enough to withstand the crimes they commit, and you have to pit them against a villain and a system worthy of vigilante justice. And it’s easy to hate the men these women scam. From the very first scene, we see how these assh*les from Wall Street view women, and it pulls our sympathies instantly. While Ramona breaks them into three groups, and cuts some slack to the lonely new hires, it’s clear from the get-go the relationship the women have with the high-powered CEOs, the ones who would go on to bankrupt a country and get away with it. The first moment we see these client/victims, they’re nicknaming the Asian Destiny as “Lucy Liu” and degrading her every chance they get. We’re also constantly reminded that they are coming fresh from the board room where they’d suckered some old woman out of her life savings – as Ramona notes, “Visiting us is the most honest thing they do all day.” As the film progresses, and the women begin to perpetrate their crimes, the men they encounter begin to grow worse and worse – Destiny is tricked into sex by an aggressive stockbroker, and one of Annabelle’s marks is aggressively handsy. By painting the men these women scam as utter douchebags, the film manages to subtly pull us into the women’s schemes, whether we morally approve of them or not. It’s a famous trick used by The Godfather – only kill/scam people who personally wronged the protagonists – and it is just as effective here. And our sympathies for the women extend further than just a bunch of chauvinist male asshats – while it is understandable (and inevitable) that the women must eventually be arrested, the film also points out the double standards present within both the justice system and the patriarchy. The reason the women find success for so long is because the men didn’t want to admit they’d been suckered by women, while the police missed obvious clues along the way because it was just a bunch of “guys getting into too much trouble chasing tail.” Hell, it is later revealed (in the film as well as the article it is based on) that the police in fact frequented the strip club and didn’t realize anything fishy was going on. Of course, missing the warning signs doesn’t stop them from showing up in full force, with a SWAT team as backup, to arrest our heroines – four scrappy, unarmed women. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria knows exactly how to pit these women against the system, and even if they can’t win, it doesn’t stop us from cheering for them.

However, while Hustlers is a critique of the system as a whole, from Wall Street to the patriarchy, it does, in fact, have bigger fish to fry. One of the film’s strongest elements is the way it puts the entire broken economic system on trial. Ever since the 2008 crash, Americans have grown more and more frustrated with a system that seeks to take advantage of workers and empower rampant scumbags at every step of the way. Hell, for the first time in a century, fixing this broken system was the #1 topic amongst both political parties in both the 2016 and 2020 elections (obviously they have embraced different tactics to do so). While the film wisely never portrays the women as desperate or destitute as a reason for embracing stripping, it does show that they are in search of something they can only accomplish in such a profession: economic freedom. With the economy in the gutter, the women try pursuing other opportunities to provide for themselves and their children, but the obnoxiously corrupt system often bars them from doing so. Destiny, for example, tries to move into retail, but is refused hire because she is a single mother and lacks retail experience – prompting the hilariously apt line, “How am I supposed to get retail experience without retail experience?” Meanwhile, when Ramona tries to swap shifts with another coworker in order to see her daughter, she is reprimanded by her boss, who condemns her for a lack of work ethic. “You don’t see the men around here leaving to take care of their kids! Why don’t you just hire a babysitter?” he declares. When Ramona explains that she can’t afford to on her lowly salary, the boss replies, “Well, if you just work more hours, then you’ll be able to afford a babysitter!” It is this inherently flawed circle of logic that drives the women into their scheme.

But it is once the women begin enacting their plan that the film really digs into its condemnation of the system. When Destiny and Ramona first concoct their scheme, it is framed and executed in the exact same manner that Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin discussed Facebook in The Social Network. When Destiny begins sweet talking the men and pulling off the scams, she casually notes in voiceover, “I could have worked on Wall Street.” It’s a funny statement both because it points out that women just as smart as, say, a Jordan Belfort or a Lehman Brothers exec are barred entry from the position for reasons of race, gender, and background, while also pointing out that complimenting and suckering people into giving up their money is pretty much the definition of how our economy currently functions. In a similarly ironic bit near the end, a recently “reformed” Destiny reveals that she followed up her crime spree with a job in pharmaceuticals, which is brilliant not only thanks to her background in cooking drugs, but thanks to companies like Pfizer and Turing, may in fact be more illegal than any crime she committed while stripping. In what may be the best scene of the film, we witness a long tracking shot of Destiny, still in her stripper clothes and caked in the blood of an injured “client,” walks her daughter into school, after barely making it in time to pick her up and drop her off. The scene is bold, audacious, and funny, but it also serves as an apt metaphor for what women often have to go through in order to hold down a career and a family. Maybe not to that extreme, but I’m sure most women can vouch to dropping off their kids at school while underdressed and worried that they won’t make it to/from work in time. Make no mistake: the film is making the strong, compelling case that the enterprise these women ran is no worse than most businesses, and they functioned inside the system the exact same way.

In fact, one needs look no further than Ramona’s arc to find proof of this. Like Goodfellas and The Godfather before her, once Ramona receives a taste of the good life, she allows the corporate side of things to change her. She begins overdrawing from regulars, inevitably losing business in the long run. She loses empathy the same way companies inevitably lose sight of the needs of the consumer. Hell, during the film’s climax, when a particularly naïve, goodhearted mark loses his life savings and his mortgage, invoking Destiny’s compassion and regret, an annoyed Ramona bellows “If we don’t do this, someone else will!” This is widely known to be a mantra in venture capitalist groups, telemarketing firms, and Ponzi schemes. It’s a well-known trope, but it is no less effective, and the film makes it’s point quite clear: the minute this scam became a business is the moment these women crossed the line. In the end, Ramona waxes philosophic about the state of the world, claiming “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money, and you got people doing the dance.” While this is an obvious, slightly obnoxious quote, it’s no worse than dialogue found in Goodfellas, Scarface, and Killing Them Softly. And considering the film makes a decent case for it, I’m willing to let it slide.

Of course, Hustlers isn’t just a thematically rich film. It’s also one of the most fun, smartly constructed films of the year. Scafaria manages to infuse the film with both an eye for taste and intelligence while never forgetting to make this a fun, enjoyable experience. One of the best aspects of Hustlers is its understanding of “sexy” vs. “sexual.” A movie like Showgirls, or most films about strippers, would aim for “sexual,” as a means of titillating male viewers and lingering on the female body in a crass, animalistic way. Hustlers, in contrast, is a “sexy” movie. It allows its women to own their bodies in an honest way, never using them as an object, and allowing them to own their own sex appeal. The difference between the two can be seen in the opening scene, where a group of strippers take the stage for the first time and the camera focuses on their faces and shoulders – never their breasts or asses. Furthermore, for a film about strippers, director Lorene Scafaria offers very little in the way of nudity. The women flaunt what they’ve got in bikinis and short shorts, but only a handful of women every appear topless – and those that do are often in the background, offered as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fodder as the ladies change in between sets. The women in this film may be sexual beings of chaos, but they are not for our pleasure, and it is an admirable – and exciting – way of portraying this story. Meanwhile, Scafaria breaks up scenes with a series of brilliant musical cues, crafting one of the best soundtracks of the year. The film alternates between classical Chopin pieces, offering a sense of artistry to the women’s schemes, as well as trashy, poppy aughts-hits that would have played in clubs. Two of the best scenes of the year involve Lopez walking around her apartment in a fur coat while Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” plays and Lopez strutting down the street to the tune of Lorde’s “Royals.” Meanwhile, the soundtrack is also used to complement and articulate the story. There’s a great, scary scene showing the drugged men’s POV set to Scott Walker’s “Next,” and two Frankie Valli songs are used, once for emotional effect and once for ironic effect (“Rag Doll” and “Dawn,” for those keeping track at home). If anything, the film deserves its comparisons to Martin Scorsese just for the brilliance of its musical cues.

And Scafaria’s brilliance as a director goes beyond just the music and the staging. She also knows how to use ironic, dramatic camera and editing choices to help tell the story. The easiest comparisons to make in terms of the filmmaking are Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, but honestly, using either comparison feels cheap and demeaning. Scafaria decidedly positions herself as her own filmmaker from an early slow-mo entrance of Lopez and Wu swaggering into the club. In a fun, clever bit of emphasis, the sound design inserts comical “ca-chings” whenever Destiny or Ramona successfully cons a man into paying for things (a great sequence involves Destiny laying down a sob story on a rich patron about lacking a computer, before a quick cut to her new laptop). Furthermore, while the film utilizes the over-used trope of flashback-via-interview to tell its story, Scafaria uses this to her advantage, allowing her characters to talk to the camera on occasion to help fill in gaps for the viewers. This flashback narrative also allows for some brilliant moments of narrative trickery in the third act, as the aforementioned sympathetic victim has his last name bleeped the same way it would be in an article or court record. Meanwhile, when the women get burned by one of their new members, the sound design during the sting operation shifts to resemble a cheap police recording device, demonstrating the recordings and how exactly the women were eventually taken down. But lest you worry that the film ends on a sour note, the film ends on a big dance sequence, followed by an ironic strip club announcer sending you on your way. Scafaria knows exactly when to insert a funny decision, a dramatic flair, and an absurd cut, and if that’s not the trademark of a gifted director, I don’t know what is.

However, above all else, there is one weapon in Hustlers’ arsenal that makes this film an unbeatable knockout: Jennifer Lopez. Having spent her last two decades trapped in a series of bad romantic comedies and terrible Ben Affleck films, it is easy to forget that Lopez is also a gifted performer – and she spends no time at all reminding you why here. In her very first scene, she performs one of the best movie dances you’ll ever see set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (a rather obvious choice, but you’ll move on quickly). It’s sexy, athletic, and jaw-dropping, but you won’t realize just how impressive it really is until it is mentioned in the next scene that Lopez’s Ramona was “Playboy Centerfold ’93.” Why is this line important? Because it reminds you that Lopez is 50 years old. That’s right, at age 50, Lopez looks that good, can dance that well, and still outshines everyone in this film, of every age and every gender. I mean, you need look no further than an already-iconic moment in her second scene, when she’s sprawled out on a rooftop in a fur coat smoking a cigarette. But I don’t need to spend this entire write-up discussing how great a dancer and how pretty Jennifer Lopez is – you already know all that. What you may not realize, unless you’ve seen Out of Sight, is that Lopez is also a great actress. And honestly? No one else could have played this role. From the moment she appears on screen, she’s a f*cking magnet. Using her New York accent and mannerisms, she constantly quick-talks her way into every scene, drawing your attention every step of the way. Every moment she’s onscreen, your eyes are immediately drawn to her, and every moment she’s not, your wondering where she is. It’s rather similar to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas – the role is so perfect for her personality and quick-talk mannerisms, that the two blend together to form one perfect union. And not only does Lopez excel in the role of Ramona, she adds little quirks and quotes that elevate her to the status of icon. Whether she’s standing in a kitchen wearing an apron and cooking her drug combination, teaching Wu’s Destiny how to pole dance, or hosting the best damn Christmas party I’ve seen on film this century, Lopez makes Ramona a lived-in presence, a character you desperately want to meet, gawk at, and resemble. And it stands tall as one of the best turns of the year.

While no performer in this film manages to match Lopez in undeniable charisma, that isn’t to say they aren’t good in this film, or even great. Constance Wu offers us a complicated, impressive performance as Dorothy, a woman who feels some level of guilt over what they’re doing, but enjoys the freedom and sisterhood of the plan more. She’s the Walter White of the film, and it works for that reason. Meanwhile, it’s been a long time since Keke Palmer had a truly great role, and she shines as something of the straight woman of the bunch, while Lili Reinhart is fantastic, even with a mostly funny, slightly hacky bit involving her habit for puking-when-stressed. Mercedes Ruehl is fantastic as Mama, the den mother of the club, but compared with her vast experience and talents, I can’t help but feel she’s a little wasted in the role. The more-impressive matriarch is Wai Ching Ho, who plays Destiny’s grandmother with a degree of warmth and compassion that will immediately sympathize you to both her and her granddaughter. Much has been made of the presence of Trace Lysette, Lizzo, and Cardi B in the film, and they’re both great, but don’t let the advertising fool you: they’re basically performing glorified cameos. And considering Lizzo plays the flute and Cardi B rolls her tongue and swaggers throughout her sequences, it’s easy to argue that the duo aren’t acting. Madeline Brewer is fantastic in a small turn as Dawn, a drug addict drawn into the schemes by Ramona as a rival to Destiny. And because I guess I have to talk about the men in the film, I want to shout out Steven Boyer, Devin Ratray, and Gerald Earl Gilliam for their small, but significant turns as tragic, mildly scummy, and ridiculously awful men, respectively. All around, it’s a really great cast.

Hustlers is a fun, smart, insightful look at modern society. But unlike most other pessimistic films to tackle these subjects in recent years, it does so through heart and exuberant joy. It’s like a Flintstone’s vitamin – a fun, pleasant way to take something healthy for you. It’ll be a long time before I stop thinking about Lopez’s performance, Scafaria’s direction, the weighty material, or the film’s unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Many critics have offered up the claim “Goodfellas with chicks” as a condescending way of addressing the film’s style. But that’s not it at all – Hustlers deals with sisterhood the same way Goodfellas addresses the bonds of brotherhood. It’s not just one of the most fun experiences you’ll have at the theatres this year – it’s one of the best you’ll have, too.

B+

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