From the beginning, Lorene Scarfaria’s 2019 crime dramedy Hustlers seemed to have just about everything going against it. On paper, a strange mish-mash of a cast (including Cardi B and Riverdale sweetheart Lili Reinhart) doesn’t make sense for an ensemble stripper film. On top of the cast, the film is led by a smaller director largely known for indie-comedies, so it’s no surprise that the cast and crew raised many brows of film lovers.
Hustlers, inspired by a 2015 article published in New York Magazine by Jessica Pressler, follows the story of a group of New York strippers who find a new way to remain financially afloat when the 2008 recession hits. With the previously wealthy men now unwilling to drop a large chunk of change in exchange for a lap dance, the club is no longer able to provide sufficient pay. When the money quits flowing to the men, it quits flowing to the dancers too. With little left in her bank account, Destiny (Constance Wu) decides she needs to find a new way to support both her child and her grandmother.
The ever-confident Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) struts back into Destiny’s life—she’s desperate and she has a plan. Her plan involves drugging men and maxing out their credit cards. Even when the money is more than enough, Lopez and her partners in crime have a hard time letting go of their new found greed. Their desire for more takes them down a hole of risk and danger.
Despite being somewhat of an oddity, Lorene Scafaria’s latest feature was deemed the biggest surprise of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and boasts a fresh 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Hustlers could’ve easily been an embarrassment. With a strange assortment of musicians and several young actresses lacking in expansive onscreen experience, the film had the opportunity to be a shallow one. Instead, the seemingly odd casting choices mesh together perfectly to create a harmonious, inviting group.
Constance Wu helms the film as Destiny, a young woman set on making a comfortable life for herself and beloved grandmother. Wu captures the feeling quite well—her character is desperate for stability, money and friendship, and her quiet yet simultaneously clear development is captivating. Constance Wu finds her sweet spot of fierceness and vulnerability, and she capitalizes on it.
Jennifer Lopez is confident Ramona, experienced exotic dancer and ring leader of the nightly schemes that she and her recruits execute. Her character introduction helps to establish Lopez as an irresistible force for the viewer, strip club customers, and Destiny alike. She swaggers onto her familiar stage in unbelievably high heels and a barely-there glitter piece. Her confidence is alluring. Soon enough, Destiny is swept under Ramona’s fur-coated wing.
Supporting performances include Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer who bring the comedy. Reinhart plays a ditsy yet driven young woman with a habit of vomiting under pressure. Surprisingly, the vomit gags work, and provide comedic relief in tense moments. Palmer accomplishes the same with a sweet, bubbly and simultaneously layered portrayal of a woman with desires. The ever wonderful Lizzo (and her flute Sasha) even has a brief cameo. Cardi B’s screen time is limited, but works well, as the rapper basically plays herself.
Because of an empathetic lead performance from Wu and obvious compassion behind the camera, viewers are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the messy emotions felt by Destiny and her new friends. The camera lingers on their faces when the time is right. We feel uncomfortable when they do. We feel joy when they do. Unlike the many male-directed uncomfortable strip scenes I’ve endured, Scafaria’s camera never feels exploitative. Her camera dances with bodies. It observes instead of objectifying. She makes a clear effort to paint pole dancing as the art it is.
Despite an empathetic camera, there is still plenty of room for the audience to critique the criminal actions of the group. Hustlers never leans into the all too common idealizing nature of crime on film. Instead, the criminal actions taken carry emotional weight for not only the women, but their victims. Money causes all kinds of people to do terrible things, and this film understands it. Hustlers never excuses harmful choices, but allows viewers to ponder the impact of enormous greed, whether it festers in Wall Street or a strip club.
Hustlers is a bombastic, glitzy exploration of the modern American dream. It carries emotional weight while providing a thoroughly entertaining story. This film is exactly what we need right now. In an age where many films viewed in chain theaters are remakes, parts of a franchise, or reboots, Lorene Scafaria’s latest is a breath of fresh air.
Hustlers is in theaters worldwide.