Film Review: ‘Hustlers’ Is A Razor-Sharp Romp With A Twist

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First things first. Yes, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers really is that good. Arriving on a wave of hype and critical acclaim, the film not only lives up to expectations — it exceeds them. Which has to be the magic trick of 2019. After all, when Hustlers was announced, it evoked memories of Show Girls and Burlesque. (Which was not necessarily a bad thing). Instead, it falls somewhere between Goodfellas and The Big Short with a splash of The First Wives Club thrown in for good measure.

Hustlers begins by following Destiny (an impressive Constance Wu) on her shift at a NYC strip club. Her existence is neither glamorous nor sordid. She’s simply doing what she can to get through life and help out her grandmother. Things change drastically, however, when she meets a club veteran. As played by Jennifer Lopez, Ramona is both a force of nature and a caring mother hen to the younger women around her. She is also whip smart and teaches Destiny how to fish for rich dudes with full wallets.

Bottles are popping and money is raining down like confetti until the financial crisis of 2008 hits, and the whales of Wall Street no longer show up to the club. Destiny has a child and loses touch with Ramona, but fate brings them back together. By that point, Ramona has upped the ante and is working outside the law. Instead of stripping for the club, she is going directly to the source by finding wealthy businessmen in bars and then finessing her way into their wallet by any means necessary. Even, as it turns out, if it means drugging them into unconsciousness.

What happens from there would beggar belief if Hustlers wasn’t based on a true story. This isn’t so much a Robin Hood undertaking as a pyramid scheme for strippers. It’s a house of cards that was always destined to crumble, but it sure was magnificent to see while it stood. After all, Hustlers is all about turning the tables. Instead of being beholden to the whims of men, these women take things into their own extravagantly-manicured hands. And they do it while (generally) taking care of, and empowering, each other.

J.Lo’s towering performance as Ramona has been widely acclaimed, but much of the praise feels like a backhanded compliment. Ms. Lopez has always been a great actress. Whether she’s playing a tough detective in Out Of Sight or a victim of domestic violence in Enough, the ultimate triple threat always comes through. (Let’s not even mention the awards she deserved for Selena). However, Hustlers is next level. Ramona is simultaneously tough as nails and soft as a marshmallow. She is smart and overly trusting. There is shade and nuance to the character that makes her a deeply human anti-heroine. The fact that she does this while rocking gravity-defying thongs and swinging around a pole like a Cirque Du Soleil performer is truly mind-boggling.

While J.Lo is the backbone of Hustlers, Constance Wu is its heart. She is cautious where Ramona is reckless, empathetic where Ramona is callous. Their mother/daughter dynamic is unique and palpable. Which makes their inevitable falling out all the more brutal. The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Julia Stiles makes a good foil for the woman as a straight-laced journalist, Keke Palmer exudes charisma as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart steals every scene she’s in as the constantly bilious Annabelle. Throw in some dynamic cameos from Cardi B, Lizzo and the always-great Mercedes Ruehl, and you have a rock solid foundation for a great movie.

None of these great actors would shine as brightly, however, without the skill of writer/director Lorene Scafaria. While the film lags ever-so-briefly in the middle, she largely keeps Hustlers chugging along like a bullet train. Most importantly, and perhaps surprisingly for a film that features copious nudity, there’s nothing sleazy about her gaze. She presents these women as warriors and athletes, showcases their power and personality. And when it does come time to titillate (J.Lo’s entrance is now movie canon), she presents the women as goddesses.

Hustlers is that rarest of things. A quality, timely film (Hollywood needs more female directors and female-led casts with diversity and depth) with box office appeal and an entertainment factor of the charts. Hustlers is in theaters today (September 13) and you need to see it.

Rating: 4/5

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