Review: Hustlers (2019)

Hustlers is one of those delightful surprises that pops up now and then, a film directed by a relative unknown with a plot that renders simple advertising inadequate for daring to explore a controversial subject matter with an uncommon amount of depth. This is the story of a group of strippers who begin drugging and robbing rich men after the 2008 financial crisis, a tale that unfolds with surprising grace.

The risk of a film about strippers is the overwhelming presence of the male gaze; even with Lorene Scafaria directing, there’s still the worries of outside pressures enforcing a certain focus. The film is indeed loaded with sexy scenes (as far as my rather gay eyes can tell), yet these moments are cast in an empowering light. Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona Vega as a woman in full control of her situation, suggesting she’s the one actually exploiting the men who lob money at her simply for moving a certain way. A stellar pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” sets the tone, Ramona taking center stage while being at a safe distance from the cheering crowd. Dollar bills cover the stage and, when she finally approaches the edge, more money floods her way. Ramona may be the center focus for the men, but the film is really guiding our focus to the surprising amount of cash covering the set.

This film doesn’t intend to mislead its audience about the plights of women in this business. This film is framed with an interview, the type of element many stories based on true events use to remind us that they really happened. Hustlers instead uses these moments to add effective punches. An early scene finds Constance Wu’s Dorothy calling out the interviewer for suggesting Ramona was manipulative from the beginning and therefore attempting to paint strippers in a bad light. These scenes reinforce the fact that women like Dorothy and Ramona are fully in control of their own agency. By so perfectly establishing Dorothy as a real woman, it makes her most desperate moments all the more devastating.

Hustlers is loaded with a surprising amount of heart; it simply would not work as well without the chemistry between Lopez and Wu. Their first scene together finds Ramona almost literally taking then-new girl Dorothy under her wing by engulfing her in a fur coat as they sit together on a cold roof and discuss technique. This evolves into a genuine friendship, the two becoming close enough that they almost seem like family at a certain point. This makes the inevitable collapse that the interview scenes allude to all the more heartbreaking.

A lot of this works by keeping entirely focused on women. Despite performing for men, there is not a single important male character in this cast. As such, we really get into the soul of what guides these women. A simply hilarious scene finds the women getting ready for work and talking about their total disinterest in actual sex, with Cardi B’s Diamond pulling out a new vibrator and suggesting it to be a better lover than any man. There are enough scenes with the women simply preparing for work that the film showcases how mundane this whole experience is from their perspective.

All of this is backed up by surprisingly proficient stylistic and technical precision. The editing here is key to the entire experience, time passing in montages and no second ever being wasted – I can’t think of a single moment where I felt that the movie was missing a beat. Despite the high stakes, Hustlers knows when to play to comedy, and a lot of the best jokes exist within the cuts – one scene finds the two leads testing out a new mixture for their drug followed by an immediate shot of the two sprawled out on the floor.

For a film about strippers, Hustlers has a fantastic eye for costume design. Fur coats and fine jewelry operate as signifiers that everything these women do is worth it to be able to survive comfortably in this system. I particularly like Dorothy’s outfit during the interviews, wearing a chain bracelet with a powerful rattle. This is a reminder that extravagance is sometimes justified as a form of self-love, especially for those so used to struggling day to day.

Hustlers is the rare semi-mainstream American film that actually embraces the technical elements of the medium to stellar results. Telling a story as timely as ever through the eyes of a group commonly treated as if they’re on the lowest rung of the social ladder, it transcends expectations to become a powerful take on America as it is today. By keeping so ground-level, Scafaria makes a stronger statement about the failure of the American Dream than so many others that only approach the subject from a heightened level. Equally joyous and moving, Hustlers is a film that demands to be seen.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

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