Hustlers | Lorene Scafaria | September 13, 2019
When the 2008 recession hit, a small group of strip club workers in Manhattan took it upon themselves to scam a number of their Wall Street clientele as a form of payback. Their story, initially told in Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Score”, serves as the basis for Hustlers, writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s 3rd feature.
Hustlers opens in 2007 with Destiny (Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu), new to the strip club life and looking to stay afloat and help her grandma (Daredevil’s Wai Ching Ho). She is awe-struck by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) working the crowd and asks for some tips, resulting in Destiny being fully welcomed into the club family – including Mercedes (Beale Street’s Keke Palmer), Tracey (Transparent’s Trace Lysette), Diamond (rapper Cardi B), and Liz (rap flautist Lizzo). Ramona also starts to show her how to lightly fleece Wall Street clientele until the bottom drops out of the economy and Destiny steps back from strip club life to raise her baby Lily, only to be drawn back in several years later because of desperate financial straits. Destiny is roped into a new Robin Hood-esque scheme to drug Wall Street types and run up their credit and debit cards at the club for a cut of the sales – with help from Mercedes and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) – which steadily escalates until new recruit Dawn (Cam’s Madeline Brewer) slips up and authorities start to get suspicious.
Taking a page from Scorsese gangster flicks, The Big Short (strengthened by producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), stealing from the rich a la Robin Hood, and a little Showgirls salaciousness, Hustlers asks audiences to empathize with sex workers, something that’s rarely done in film and TV. This works well because the film lacks a male gaze. Todd Banhazi’s cinematography – especially the dance numbers and back-room dealings – is never leering, but rather empowering and accepting. This acceptance and empowerment also extends to the cast. With the inclusion of Cardi B and Lysette, among others, Hustlers adds some legitimacy to talent with a background in the sex work industry, along with LGBTQ talent in larger roles – more so for Lysette.
However, Hustlers does trip over its heels from time to time, as is common with gangster flicks. The passage of time in the film, at times, feels like days or weeks, rather than months. This is more so during several montage moments, and a little more could have been done to make that clearer. There’s also the framing aspect with Julia Stiles’ reporter Elizabeth. Stiles is relatively one-note and mostly serves to present the events of the film in hindsight, while also harkening back to the original article. This did help a little from a narration/context standpoint, but it kept pulling me out of the hustling experience. Additionally, even though Constance Wu gets top billing and is the POV character, Hustlers is far and away Lopez’s film to steal and worth the price of admission.