With a string of summer films that had a shocking lack of edge and verve, Hustlers delivers the goods that are an offspring of Goodfellas that came out wearing a pair of stilettos.
It has been a long, dry summer with a shocking drought of studio film fare with verve and much-needed edge. I mean, I love a good Disney film or action picture as much as the next film fiend, but how many reincarnated dog films, eye-rolling CGI action animation, and movie scripts that have an alarming lack of conviction can one film critic take? Even the great Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood left many longings for the days of Marsellus Wallace with his buddies, Zed, and the Gimp. I’m not sure if writer/director Lorene Scafaria has a doctorate, but her new films sure had the prescription for some of that much-needed cowbell. Hustlers is on an even lower scale, a seedier version of the 2008 financial crisis; it’s an alternate universe in which the kind of clubs the men of The Wolf of Wall Street would be frequent turn the tables, the men waking up with less money in their pocket and a substantially reduced credit score.
Based on the New York Magazine’s 2015 article titled “The Hustlers at Scores” by journalist Jessica Pressler, Hustlers stars Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, who plays Dorothy (or Destiny, depending on how you may have met her), a novice stripper who needs a helping hand or two to attract higher-paying patrons at her local place of work, Scores, so she can support her elderly grandmother. She is in awe of the star of the joint, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who has a sort of loyal fan base the New York Knicks would be envious of. Destiny sees the potential, and Ramona doesn’t so much actually take her under her wings as Destiny latches on for dear life. From there, Ramona teaches her three types of customers Destiny needs to identify for the Hustle: the cheap, anxious type that string you along for weeks at a time; the steady, average money men who they rely on when you hit a lull; and lastly, the big-ticket items, the stockbrokers, CEO types that want nothing more than to snort some coke, drop a wad of cold hard cash on the floor for the girls to pick up at their feet, and try to get them to do a little extra on top in the process; this is all in the name of how to work the business they call strip show.
What makes Hustlers so sharp and entertaining is the fresh angle it takes on the great financial crisis that The Big Short brilliantly exposed and what The Wolf of Wall Street‘s underlying themes were really all about. The script by Scafaria, who also wrote the scripts for such new cult classics (and wordsmith titles) as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, are sharp, full of vigor, and headlined by two terrific performances in Jennifer Lopez and the Constance Wu. Lopez, which amounts to a supporting role, despite its high-wattage showing making it feel like a lead, is easily her best film role and performance (and if you’ve seen Out of Sight, that’s saying something). It’s a role that, at first glance, might not seem tricky, but has to be walked one a fine line of the unethical protagonist of the film and the unexpected heart of its family feel.
Then there is the matter of Constance Wu, who didn’t really so much trip over a PR speed bump this past summer as much as she dove headfirst into it. She has the role with less flash but had to carry the film on her shoulders. She displays a knack for her character’s subterfuge that is miles away from her breakout role in Fresh off the Boat and her star-making turn in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians; it’s a fantastic pivot turn in her career that may be overshadowed by Lopez’s dynamic role.
Hustlers may have actually benefited from a few more minutes to allow the story to breathe, since it juggles Destiny’s interview with the New York magazine report with flashbacks to pre and post-financial crashes. Sure, it may raise some eyebrows that a #MeToo movement film has hit mainstream success that’s about strippers in a male-oriented industry about strippers, but not so fast. When you add up the performances from its leads, the self-assured direction, and its rhythmic/humorous dialogue, Hustlers delivered the goods; an offspring of Goodfellas that came out wearing a pair of stilettos.