What kind of film is "Hustlers?" Well, it's one where of the first lines of the film is Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vega strolling through a strip club after an insanely energetic opening dance number, with a corsage of singles around her and asking Constance Wu's, Dorothy, "Does the money make you horny?"
If for whatever reason that description alone doesn't give you a fair enough idea, I'll try to elaborate.
"Hustlers" is based on Jessica Pressler's 2015 The Cut article, "The Hustlers at Scores," which I encourage you all to read as a fascinating depiction of strip club politics, post-recession mentalities, and female business relationships, all wrapped in plenty of sex and drugs.
I read the whole article after the film and, aside from a few missing details, is a pretty good representation of the film (but we'll get to that.)
The film attempting to visualize that story is being directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for 2012's "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" with Steve Carell and Keira Knightly, and 2015's "The Meddler" with Rose Byrne and Susan Sarandon.
I'll admit the former of the two I was pretty mixed on, and I never got around to seeing the latter despite the good word of mouth. Combined some decent enough trailers, and a pretty eclectic looking cast, I wasn't going into this without some form of trepidation.
So..."Hustlers," Does it work? To my surprise, it really does! Walking out of the theater, I was shocked at how well-paced, impeccably-directed, and surprisingly poignant 'Hustlers' turns out to be, on top of inhabiting the same emotional resonance as is described in Pressler's original article.
In 2007, Dorothy (played by Constance Wu) is working as an exotic dancer at a New York nightclub to support herself and grandmother. During her first days at the club, she meets Ramona Vega (played by Jennifer Lopez), a veteran dancer who makes thousands in tips every night with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of how the patrons of the club, mostly Wall Street stockbrokers, interact.
Ramona and Dorothy quickly form a partnership to earn maximum money, as the owners of the club continue to take more tips from the dancers.
Eventually, the 2008 Recession hits the economy, leaving Ramona, Dorothy, and the other dancers low on work. This changes when Ramona comes to Dorothy with an idea: drug their clientele and encourage them to spend more than they really should.
Allying themselves with two other dancers, Annabelle (played by Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (played by Keke Palmer), the women turn their situation into a net positive for themselves to get rich, even as their activities become riskier with their expanding operation.
Lorene Scafaria directs the hell out of this movie, with a very convincing balancing act of friendship comedy-drama and Scorcese-esque crime film, and it really sticks the landing in those regards.
She and cinematographer Todd Banhazl give those tones the visual sensibilities they deserve, with excellently choreographed club sequences and patient, blissful sequences interacting with the main cast.
Speaking of that cast, we need to talk about them, and Jennifer Lopez is the focal point of this discussion. I've never been particularly interested in her as an actress - outside of notable exceptions like 1997's 'Selena' - but all that awards buzz you may have been hearing around her, it's not for nothing.
Outside of the pure physicality of the role (as I mentioned earlier, her character's introduction is going to stick in my mind for a long time), Lopez commands the screen to a degree where you don't know what she'll do next, but you know you'll have to pay attention to the charm, charisma and leadership the character insists on.
I could say similar about Constance Wu, who starts out in a bit of an "audience surrogate" vein, but quickly develops into a driven and caring partner to Ramona. It's that chemistry between Lopez and Wu that is the driving anchor for the insanity the movie goes through.
That sense of female comradery also delightfully spreads out to Palmer's Mercedes and Reinhart's Annabelle, both of whom never get the level of attention that the main duo gets, but they still have their own distinct energy to them and help that sense of chemistry evolve over the course of the story. We're never supposed wholeheartedly root for these characters, but we are supposed to relate to their complexities as human beings and the situations their lives are in to even consider going this route.
There's also a remarkably mature thread about the stigmatization of sex work that gets brought up multiple times in the movie, mainly around how exotic dancers are constantly passed aside, objectified, and not treated as "real worker." In the hands of a lesser storyteller, I might find that kind of reiteration annoying, but the continually evolving chemistry between our main characters makes it feel incredibly compelling.
I will say if anyone out there is stoked at the notion of "Wow! Cardi B and Lizzo are leading this new movie," you might want to reevaluate those perceptions. They come in, do their thing (in this case, playing some decent alternate versions of their musical personas) and get out.
Quite frankly, I thought they were fine, but I didn't gather anything from their characters as interesting as the main duo. In addition, Julia Stiles pops up Elizabeth, who is a journalist based on Pressler and documenting the story, to lean the film into a different type of story framing and, while I wasn't floored with the decision, it does give us some of Constance Wu's best moments.
If really anything stands out in the movie, the actual scenes where our protagonists "over-entertain" the customers seem a bit repetitive after a while. Again, they're wonderfully shot and paced, but after a while they do feel a bit same-y, maybe the point was to visualize that those kinds of men are all very similar (as implied by Ramona in the film), but I feel like there could have been a little more variation in those scenes than what we actually get.
There's also an extended musician cameo in the first act that unfortunately overstays its welcome, and causes the second act to start rather sluggishly.
The film picks up soon after, but there is a sort of lull the film has in the middle that I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed by.
At the end of the day, "Hustlers" really surprised me, not because of how good it is (which shouldn't get lost in translation), but because of how smart, respectful, and energetic it is. Impeccable cast and directing top off an incredibly entertaining watch that I absolutely think will be a blast on your next trip to the theater.
Overall, I give "Hustlers" 8.5/10
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