The following is a review of Hustlers — Directed by Lorene Scafaria.
Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers tells the story of how a group of fed-up female strippers drugged and robbed Wall Street money-men when they visited their club. The film stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a woman who strips to support her grandmother and pay off her debts. When she initially struggles to find success at the club she works at, Destiny teams up with the wildly successful, knowledgeable, and experienced stripper, Ramona (played by Jennifer Lopez), a single mother who takes Destiny under her wing — or, under her fur coat, so to speak (which is a reference to one of the most memorable scenes in the film) — and shows her the ropes. When the financial crisis of the late 2000s strikes, they come up with a new risky scheme to fleece potential customers.
There are important and obvious comparisons to be made with Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, and I will make those comparisons in a moment. But, as I was getting ready to write my review, it dawned on me that the 2019 film that Hustlers reminds me the most of might be Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. Both films were clearly made by promising female filmmakers. I would also say that both films admire female friendships, and both directors put these friendships on the big screen in a charming way. They are both two of my favorite films of the year, but they are also very clearly inspired by a formula or several genre tropes. Olivia Wilde’s film is a wonderful update of the coming-of-age subgenre of which Superbad is a part.
With Hustlers, it feels like Lorene Scafaria watched some very different films. Though it certainly is not the only film that it reminds me of, I think Scafaria’s Hustlers is destined to be watched in a double feature showing of it and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Scafaria’s film is very clearly the love child of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and several Martin Scorsese films including The Wolf of Wall Street, but also Goodfellas, which Hustlers has basically taken its structure from. This may be controversial for some, but I think that out of Joker and Hustlers, Scafaria’s film is the better Scorsese-inspired film.
In actuality, though I love Hustlers, I think that my biggest problem with it is the framework of the film. I’ve read the brilliant Jessica Pressler article, and Scafaria’s adaptation definitely feels true to the source material. But I do think this film might’ve been better if it didn’t use Julia Stiles’ journalist character (and her interviews) as the framing device because I simply think a more straightforward retelling of the main character’s story could’ve been more productive and certainly could’ve felt fresher. It might’ve allowed us to get a better understanding of the different characters. Because, unfortunately, many of the Hustlers‘ characters are thinly drawn and merely skin-deep.
But this is a really entertaining film. Though the film understands that what these women did was criminal, Scafaria also understands that the film’s audience likely doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for what basically amounts to The Wolf of Wall Street-background characters. In the montage-laden sections of the film, Scafaria mostly focuses on the enjoyment that these women get out of their schemes and the friendships that have been formed. Many of these characters are people that you want to get to know better. You want to go to their Christmas party. You, obviously, want to go to their club, not just for the ‘dancing,’ but also because they eventually, in a sequence that features a surprising cameo from a male musician, have so much infectious fun on-stage. Furthermore, the shots in the strip club are so slick and stylish, and the accompanying soundtrack is so outstanding, that you just never tire of being there.
On top of all of this, the cast is fun to be around. Cardi B’s cameo is not distracting whatsoever. I thought Lili Reinhart had some really fun moments, and Constance Wu gives a solid performance as the protagonist. But, as advertised elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez is just incredible here. This is without a doubt the best performance that I have ever seen her give. There is a great and enchanting physicality to her on-stage performances, one of which is, frankly, jaw-dropping. In the movie-theater that I saw the film in, audience-members were dropping their phones left and right from what I gather was pure amazement. It definitely is one of the most memorable performances of the year, even though she has one scene where she fights someone over control of a phone, in which I didn’t quite buy her attitude.
Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s third feature film as a director, is an incredibly entertaining film about female friendships that hopefully gives Scafaria more opportunities to make the films she wants to make. Although there may be some structural issues, this is a great crowdpleaser that succeeds in blending Soderbergh’s Magic Mike with the popular crime films from Martin Scorsese. I’m really looking forward to my second viewing of this one.
9 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.