Hustlers (United States, 2019)

September 12, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hustlers Poster

I have occasionally wondered what Showgirls might be like if it was made by a female director. Perhaps Hustlers offers a glimpse of the tantalizing possibility. Existing close to the nexus of the oft-derided Paul Verhoeven film and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Hustlers infuses familiar (albeit gender-swapped) tropes with elements of female empowerment. With exploitation kept to a minimum and the male gaze neutered, the film (which is loosely based on real events) focuses on the characters and their motivations.

There’s nothing new about the weaponization of sex but director Lorene Scafaria presents circumstances from the perspectives of a small group of strippers who turn their victimization into a pathway to grand larceny. Although technically a true-crime story, the movie diminishes the potential thriller aspects in favor of developing the characters and explaining, although not necessarily excusing, their criminal actions. The one aspect of Scafaria’s approach that doesn’t work is the device whereby the movie is presented as an extended flashback resulting from an interview given by the protagonist, Dolores a.k.a. Destiny (Constance Wu), to an investigative journalist (Julia Stiles).

The movie opens with a long, unbroken shot that takes us into the neon glitz of Moves, the nightclub where much of the action transpires. Though there are early moments when the film recalls the vibe (if not the particulars) of Magic Mike, Scafaria uses the opening scenes to provide a “stripper primer” – how it’s all about the tease and what kind of Wall Street workers provide the best marks (always look for the wedding ring). In a way, this behind-the-scenes tutorial offers the film’s most compelling material, not unlike how Scorsese’s opening to Casino outstrips the rest of that movie.

Destiny has just started working at Moves but her insecurity and clumsy dancing counteract her “new girl” appeal. Things start looking up when a high-end performer, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), takes an interest in her. Ramona teaches Destiny the basics of pole dancing (in a scene that allows Lopez to show off her not-insubstantial skills) and partners with her for private girl-girl shows where Wall Street fat cats drop thousands in a session. For a while, it’s a champagne-tinted wonderland, then 2008 arrives with a double whammy: Destiny becomes pregnant and the Wall Street crisis happens. In the aftermath, Destiny, Ramona, and their two compatriots, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), make the decision to use a ketamine/MDMA concoction to get customers blitzed and run up their credit card bills. When the quartet becomes unhappy about splitting their earnings with the club and starts an independent enterprise, dissatisfied customers overcome their embarrassment and start talking to the cops.

The narrative follows the time-honored tradition of the callow newcomer coming under a veteran’s wing, enjoying a satisfying and mutually-beneficial relationship with her mentor, then experiencing a falling-out. What makes Hustlers sufficiently different to be worth a look are the perspective and setting. Visually, the movie derives inspiration not only from Scorsese but (more obviously) music videos. Several long takes amp up the energy level. The focus on developing the relationships among the four women works as a distraction from some of the story’s less plausible elements.

Constance Wu, who has received a fair amount of negative press recently, shows greater range here than in Crazy Rich Asians although, oddly, I found her more convincing in the earlier role. Jennifer Lopez, incorporating elements of her “diva” personality into a richly-textured performance, rediscovers the actress who won raves so many years ago when she starred opposite George Clooney in Out of Sight. The supporting cast members, including Cardi B and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart (as the too-innocent girl whose penchant for vomiting becomes an ongoing joke), provide color to a movie that pulsates with a variety of strobe-enhanced hues.

Stories about strippers and strip clubs aren’t hard to find (How much of The Sopranos took place in one?) but most are the products of male filmmakers. The differences between those films and this one are subtle but telling. Instead of being sexualized, breasts are presented matter-of-factly. Some dancers are casually topless; others are not. More noteworthy is how the balance of power within the strip club is presented, with the women (not the clients) in control. There’s something delicious about the way Hustlers delivers on its promise of glitz, sex, and raunchiness while delving far enough beneath the surface to subvert the genre.

Hustlers (United States, 2019)

Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Cardi B, Madeline Brewer
Home Release Date: 2019-12-10
Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria, based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler
Cinematography: Todd Banhazl
U.S. Distributor: STX Entertainment
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2019-09-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1