As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Hustlers, the new film from writer/director Lorene Scafaria comes riddled with imperfections. It has too many montages, a few wafer-thin characterizations, plot strands which go nowhere, and some fairly low stakes drama, but man does it make you feel good. It also glamorizes fur and smoking, but it’s the world of this story, so what are you gonna do? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts but this joyous ride has a couple killer performances, memorable lines, and a gorgeous pop candy look. Simply put, it’s unforgettable and made me feel so, so good.
Up until now, Scafaria hasn’t impressed me with Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and The Meddler underwhelming me. With Hustlers, however, she has mastered the art of finding that sweet spot where lurid meets depth. Wildly entertaining yet with something to say about female power, it reminded me of such sensationalistic 90s films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Only this time out, the feminist female gaze stakes its claim on what’s always been a boy’s club movie.
Based on a true story, Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Destiny, a newbie exotic dancer at a Scores-like Manhattan club who gets mentored by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced Mother Hen, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Lopez, whose National Treasure status gets amped up to eleven here, stuns in her first big scene as she pole dances onstage. She follows this with an indelible rooftop pose in which she lies back like Faye Dunaway the day after her Oscar win (Google it. You’re welcome!), takes a drag from her cigarette and invites Destiny to “Climb in my fur”. Thus begins a fascinatingly complex relationship between these two women who try to make a living as the world around them crumbles.
When the market crashes and business dies at the club, Ramona can’t stand the fact that these men will get away with stealing from everyone, so her revenge/survival scheme, however illegal, has a sound motive. In this pretty clever get-rich-quick scheme, one of her cohorts will befriend their mark, get him drunk, introduce him to her other friends, get a party going, drug him, and max out his credit cards. The day after, the mostly married men won’t want to admit to their wives what they did, so our heroines have constructed a seemingly perfect crime. Framed by a reporter played by Julia Stiles, a retrospective interview she conducts with a hardened Destiny tells us things didn’t quite go as planned.
Ramona and Destiny set this standard-issue plot apart by nature of their dynamic personalities and their touching back stories. Ramona has a daughter she adores whereas Destiny lovingly takes care of her grandmother. You really get to know these characters as layered humans and not just as sexual objects. I haven’t seen this much loving detail put into a populist film since Saturday Night Fever. Wu surprises with her intense gaze and forthright line readings, revealing much more than her prior romantic comedy image. She’s incredibly engaging, but Lopez dominates this film and gives the performance of her career. It’s not that we’re realizing Lopez is a star for the first time, but this film puts together everything we love about her – the glamour, the moves, the flawless makeup, the combination of delightful and steely, the strut, the Kardashian of it all – and delivers it with blazing power and heart. It’s a great star performance.
Supporting characters, albeit fun, suffer by default. Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, while both vibrant, get assigned one character trait apiece, the dancer who vomits and the dancer who has a husband in prison respectively. Mercedes Reuhl gets introduced as the club’s Den Mother, but never develops beyond a few brush strokes. I would have loved a lot more of Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale) whose wildcard character kept me laughing and on my toes. Cardi B and Lizzo have cameos so small, they can barely pull focus away from Lopez and Wu, yet they bring a wild energy to the story. Cardi B especially makes good use of her limited screen time and gets the line of the movie when her lap dance tutorial contains instructions for Destiny to “work the clock, not the cock.” Luckily, Scafaria’s energetic script has tons more hilarious zingers where that came from and an epic, Scorsese feel. She’s helped immeasurably by her talented cinematographer Todd Banhazl and editor Kayla Emter. Hustlers does not have the feel of your typical indie. It feels lush, generous, and despite a few too many montages, however bouncy and hilarious, it’s a full meal.
Yes, the stakes could have been higher, but the soul of this film lies in the sisterhood and this powerful love between Ramona and Destiny. You root for these women even though they’re doing some very bad things. The film culminates in a stunner of a line from Ramona, framing this somewhat slight but beautiful story as something more global, real and current. In the end, it’s a depressing indictment of America, but when you have Jennifer Lopez giving us that message, somehow, it doesn’t feel so bad.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Hustlers gets a 25 out of 50. While there’s nothing explicitly gay going on here in this very straight world of exotic dancers and the men who abuse their power over them, the fabulous look and tone will make this required viewing for every single gay man and it has enough sapphic energy for the lesbian audience to go crazy.
By Glenn Gaylord
Hustlers is currently bringing in those bills, bills, bills worldwide.