A dimly-lit club, trap music, stripper poles and bottles and bottles of champagne set the stage for the crime dramedy Hustlers. Inspired by the true story documented in Jessica Pressler’s 2015 article in The Cut, “Hustlers at Scores,” Hustlers made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival among several Oscar contenders, and, with a standout performance from Jennifer Lopez, holds its own. The joy in Hustlers is that, even though it's an extremely commercial and crowd-pleasing film--with fun cameos from Lizzo, Cardi B, and Usher--it still manages to be one of the year’s best. The film is robust with humor, heart, tenacity and depth of character.
Directed by Lorene Scafaria, the film consists of a dazzling ensemble cast of women. It centers on Dorothy, a.k.a. Destiny (Constance Wu), a woman trying to make ends meet and take care of her grandmother. She’s on her latest strip club gig but doesn’t seem to be really effective at it. Enter Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a master of the art, who enraptures Destiny. Soon enough, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing and they become a dynamic duo. Ramona teaches Destiny how to remain in control with the entitled and aggressive men who come into the club. The two are among a group of women who have the club on fire, including Diamond (Cardi B) and Liz (Lizzo). Next thing you know, Destiny has an upgraded lifestyle just like Ramona. She has new clothes and a new apartment--things couldn’t be any better.
Then comes the financial crisis of 2008. With the money and glamour all dried up, Destiny gets out of the game and settles down with her boyfriend and has a child. Three years later, she's finally done with her ne'er-do-well boyfriend and seeks out the club to get some much-needed income. However, she soon discovers that things are different from how they used to be. The club is full of new girls with new cliques and she's on the outside, until she runs into the still-fabulous Ramona. Ramona's running with a clique of younger girls, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Anabelle (Lili Reinhart). While everyone is else financially struggling, Ramona and her crew are flourishing. Ramona explains how they're scamming--and drugging--Wall Street scumbags out of their money. As Ramona puts it, they get the men “drunk enough to get their credit card but sober enough to sign the check.” Destiny gets cut into the game and becomes the COO of their operation. This is where the film--the beginning of which suffers from awkward pacing and structure--hits its stride.
In no time, Destiny is back to the life that she had grown accustomed to, and she didn't even need to get back on stage to do it. But soon their targets start piecing things together and the ladies have to start answering for their crimes, and the heart of the film--the relationship between Ramona and Destiny--is tested.
Despite their illegal activities, it’s hard not to root for these women who are breaking the rules and upending an exploitative system by any means necessary. Instead of being props, used and discarded by the club where they work and the men who frequent them, they found a way to take back control of their lives and their financial future. When Ramona justifies their activities to Destiny by saying,“This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance,” it's as much for the audience's benefit as it is Destiny's. If you're not the one with the money, regardless of however you define morality or the nobility of your profession, you're probably the one doing the dance, just like the sex workers--the crucial difference being that the sex workers are fully aware of what they're doing.
This unapologetic homage to sex workers makes the ladies of Hustlers Robin Hood-esque. In their minds, they're simply collecting the money that's owed to them and they are taking it from the right folks--the 1 percenters who crashed the economy with no consequences and plunged these ladies, the club and the world into financial collapse to begin with.
Turning in what will likely go down as her best performance in ages, Lopez gets a scene near the start of the movie that proves that 22 years after her debut in Selena, Lopez has never been more at the top of her game. Unfortunately, Wu, the central character of the film and the top-billed star in the cast, is outshined by the other main cast, including the true scene-stealers of the movie, teen actors-turned-young adult stars Palmer and Reinhart. Both are major sources of the film’s comic relief, with Palmer’s delivering punchlines and a literal punch that will have you howling.
In the early infancy stages of the project, according to Scarfaria, Martin Scorsese was once eyed to direct. It is of such essential importance that a woman was tapped to helm it, and Scarfaria was definitely the one for the job. Instead of having this film disrupted with a male gaze, Scarfaria’s direction puts the narrative in the hands of the women. On the stage, Ramona isn't being objectified by the men, she's in complete control, commanding the men to empty their wallets with every split and spin around the pole. When Usher walks into the club, it's a moment for all of the ladies to come together and dance, taking all of Usher's money as bounty to split with each other. The men are being played, they're the ones being used and discarded, playing into their own clichés.
When the knee-jerk discomfort around the true crimes of these women dissipate, you can't help but enjoy Hustlers, thanks to Scarfaria's direction and the cast's compelling performances. Consisting of the scrappy storytelling qualities of an indie film yet having the crowd-pleasing mentality of blockbusters, Hustlers will hopefully pave the way for investment in these types of narratives that subvert the narratives of sex workers often depicted on screen. It’s no doubt that Hustlers is one of the most fun times you’ll have at the movies all year.
Hustlers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will hit theaters September 12.