Cinematic Releases: Hustlers (2019) - Reviewed

After the 2008 financial crisis killed their business, a group of New York City strippers found a less legal way to take thousands of dollars from Wall Street guys. This is based on a true story that seems perfect for a flashy, witty, entertaining movie, containing several good roles for women (it has been adapted from a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler). It is all of those things. It also has a big heart and love for its characters. Though it is a rags-to-ill-gotten-riches tale with a feminist bent, in the end, it is really about friendship.

It begins in 2007 by introducing viewers to Destiny, played by Constance Wu as smart, kind and self-motivated. She is struggling at a new club when she meets Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez as a charismatic force of nature. They team up and everything is good until Destiny stops dancing to raise her daughter. Cut to 2011 when she returns and Ramona clues her in to her scheme. As these stories go, life is great before one thing goes wrong.

The best things Hustlers has going for it are its pacing and its cast. The framing device, of Destiny being interviewed for a newspaper article, seems unnecessary, yet gives room for slightly deeper revelations. This way the main narrative can keep moving forward with excess and glamour. The only reason it slows down is to show Destiny’s money problems. She is miserable on her own and happy when she is working with Ramona. The tone reflects that. It is a simple, but tremendously effective, approach displaying how intoxicating that lifestyle was. This is further emphasized by their expensive clothes and the massive amounts of cash they easily seduce from their unwitting marks. 

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria may make their world look a little too enticing. Hustlers is very much in its anti-heroines corner, seemingly forgiving them for nearly anything. It mirrorsthese women with their fellow hustlers on Wall Street in terms of manipulation and morality. Since they are stealing from people who represent an industry with a reputation for stealing from their customers, is what they are doing that bad? 

The movie is clearly saying the answer is no. I think the answer is more complicated. It can be difficult for a movie to argue against what it is showing, especially when everyone is having a good time for a large part of it. Hustlers does not really try. That is not as significant a knock as it sounds, however the lack of development in that area held it back a bit in the last act.

Constance Wu carries the plot well. She keeps Destiny likable and relatable all the way through. Jennifer Lopez has the far showier role. It takes advantage of the cleverness and confidence she tends to bring to her characters, not requiring her to act so much as exist. In crime stories this would typically be the villain. Hustlers sidesteps that. While she is merciless in her pursuit of money, she truly cares for these women. Lopez has the right mix of sweetness and ruthlessness, bringing a charm and unpredictability that helps set the tone.

Hustlers has a story that says a lot about class and gender, but those messages do not land with much impact. There is some stuff about getting revenge on a system that has marginalized them and using exploitation to turn the tables on their exploiters. Scafaria never fully commits to that. What she does commit to is an enjoyable crime dramedy. It also gives Jennifer Lopez her best role in years. It might bite off a little more than it can chew. Even so, Hustlers is entertaining, amusing and very fun to watch.

-Ben Pivoz