'Hustlers' Review: A Fiercely Funny Crowdpleaser That Lacks The Bite of Its Stranger-Than-Fiction True Story
It’s a story, literally, ripped from the headlines: a group of strippers run a scam that cheats their Wall Street clients out of thousands of dollars. On paper, it’s the perfect fodder for a feature film adaptation — full of drama, drugs, and a messy but tight-knit group of ruthless women who are simply evening out the playing field. We get some of that in Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a New York Magazine article from 2015.
With an all-star cast led by a fierce Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers is a glossy crowdpleaser that shatters the male gaze. But in avoiding titillation, Hustlers ends up taking some of the teeth out of a sharp, sensuous, and satisfying true-life scam story described in its original New York Magazine piece as a “modern-day Robin Hood” fable.
Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu), a timid newcomer at a swanky New York stripclub who has picked up stripping to support her grandmother. But she finds herself shut out and overwhelmed by the high-rolling clientele, until she meets the dazzling Ramona (Lopez), a veteran stripper who takes Destiny under her wing. The two become a dream team, and Destiny discovers a sweet camaraderie among the colorful ensemble of strippers, which are populated by a host of celebrities like rappers Cardi B and Lizzo, who are apparently only there to lend their star power and never show up again.
It’s 2007, and strip clubs are a goldmine. Despite the sleazy clients who were ostensibly the ones in power, Destiny learns through Ramona that the women hold the power, truly. She learns to manipulate the scores of wealthy, sexist men who frequent their club, and get shoes, clothes, and a computer out of them because they deserve it. Scafaria’s camera is sensual but never leering, wresting the gaze away from the men and handing it back to the women. But the film is so eager to double down on its messages of female empowerment that it ignores any of the seedy kitchen-sink realism that the beginning of the film gestured at, instead getting caught up in its own portrait of righteously acquired wealth.
Hustlers makes a swift return to that gritty realism when the financial crisis comes crashing down. Destiny, who had left the stripping business to have a child, finds herself trudging back to the stripclub as a last resort. But the scene has changed since she left, and model-esque Russian dancers who gave “$300 blow jobs” were now swinging around the poles, with none of her former friends in sight. When Destiny hits rock bottom after a heartbreaking backroom encounter — a display of sheer raw emotion from Wu that I’ll admit made me tear up — she is overjoyed to see Ramona again, who she discovers has stopped stripping for a much more rewarding gig.
With the clubs nearly deserted after the financial crisis hit Wall Street hard, Ramona and her crew of adoring stripper proteges (Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer) had taken to “fishing” for clients at high-class bars, wine and dining them before inviting them back to the clubs and taking a percentage of the profits. Intrigued, Destiny joins in on their hustle and eventually sees an opportunity for it to become even more lucrative. She and Ramona concoct a plan in which they’ll sprinkle a dose of MDMA and ketamine into the clients’ drinks before dragging them back to the club to pry out their information, heading back to their apartments to party and max out the credit cards.
It takes a long time for the film to get to the meat of the story: the scam. It’s a stark divide between this first and second half of Hustlers, with the film shedding that gritty shaky-cam realism for outright camp — hints of which were scattered through the early parts of the film, including a Britney Spears needledrop that was pure cheesy cinematic poetry. The scam’s prelude — which is, admittedly, essential to establish the codependent, maternal relationship between Ramona and Destiny that provides the emotional backbone of the movie — feels like it’s almost from a different movie, and is where Hustlers feels the most atonal. Does it want to be a grimy snapshot of the seedy underbelly of stripping, or does it want to be a glossy Robin Hood tale? Once it decides it’s the latter, the energy immediately kicks in and Hustlers transforms into a zippy, tongue-in-cheek black comedy.
Reinhart and Palmer’s characters lend to much of the comedy of the latter half of the film, with Reinhart’s doe-eyed stripper given the weird quirk of vomiting whenever she is stressed. It leads to some outrageous scenes when the group’s scams go wrong, and a client passes out from too much of the homemade concoction.
Lopez and Wu get to flex their natural comedy chops a bit too, in particular in one scene where they try to perfect the drug’s recipe and end up knocked out on the floor of their apartment. But despite Wu being the ostensible protagonist of the film, Hustlers belongs to Lopez. Shrewd, unapologetic, and fiercely protective, Lopez is glamor incarnate — her introduction is one destined to be imitated in gay clubs for years to come: confidently strutting into the club in a silvery leotard not unlike her famous Grammy’s outfit, dancing an awe-inspiring routine, and later retiring to the roof to smoke a cigarette in a fantastic fur coat. When she wraps her fur coat around the shivering Destiny, the image radiates a mama chick aura, an aura that never fades through the rest of the film even as Destiny begins to see the holes in Ramona’s persona — she cares too much. It’s what ultimately her downfall, when she takes in one too many damaged ex-strippers, one of whom end up divulging their scheme to the police.
When reading the New York Magazine piece, “The Hustlers at Scores,” I was struck by what a fascinating unreliable narrator the co-ringleader Roselyn Keo was. She’s arrogant, vulnerable, mean, undeniably charming, and a far cry from the Wu’s blandly ambitious character that Keo inspired. Destiny’s narration to Julia Stiles‘ journalist tease some of the personality of the real-life person her character is based on, with some of her absurd dialogue lifted straight out of the article (“It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people”). But despite some interesting hints at Destiny’s insecurities, she ends up far less interesting to watch than Lopez.
Hustlers is crowdpleaser to its core. It never gets too nasty, though in the few instances it does, it shows a glimmer of the sharp, acidic movie that the real-life story portends. But as a campy female-empowerment comedy anchored by a scene-stealing Lopez, it’s still a good time.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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