Hustlers could easily have been a plot-driven film, focused on telling its real-life story about New York City strippers scamming thousands from their Wall Street clientele with as much style as possible. Instead, writer-director Lorene Scafaria mines her script for compelling themes, and Hustlers becomes a film that is really about everything else.
It’s about the Recession, and how far a person is willing to go when facing desperation. It’s about the power of female relationships, particularly friendships and the mother-daughter bond, to endure hardship. And, perhaps most intriguingly, it’s a film about narratives, the power that comes from telling a story and the danger of looking for truth in a single perspective.
This story belongs to Destiny (Constance Wu), a former stripper being interviewed about her involvement with a scheme to coerce intoxicated clients into emptying their bank accounts overnight. But, intent on showing the good before explaining the bad, she starts before all that.
We see her nervous early days working the New York club, the glamor and discomfort that come with the job, and her idolization of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the hyper-confident star performer that becomes her mentor. Their collaboration and friendship brought Destiny her first real taste of success, and for a year she was genuinely happy.
She knows that’s not what her interviewer wants to hear about, just as Scafaria knows the same of her audience, but they both think it’s important for us to see how far these women fell when the 2008 financial crisis upset their lives. They became desperate, yes, but their foray into crime was just as motivated by revenge. Weren’t these entitled moneymen the ones responsible for messing up the world in the first place?
This empathetic, character-driven approach puts the spotlight on the actors, and both Wu and Lopez deliver subtle, layered performances in the lead roles. The smallest gestures are all it takes to develop the intensity of their relationship, left almost entirely unspoken — but is there more we’re not seeing?
As Scafaria intercuts the past with the interview, we become increasingly conscious of Destiny controlling her narrative, primarily through the excellent cinematography by Todd Banhazl. The camera is drifting and unsteady when focused on Destiny, but when Ramona takes control of a scene, the frame becomes steady and secure. She even cuts off the interview-narration from time to time. But is this larger-than-life personality the real Ramona? How much of this story can we trust? Questions like this only add intrigue to an already engaging plotline.
However, one provocative stylistic choice leaves many more engaging thoughts on the table. The men in Hustlers are a series of interchangeable sleezeballs, something that Scafaria self-consciously plays for humor (often to wild success) as a comment on the one-dimensional women that litter film history.
But the audience’s sympathy becomes so thoroughly one-sided that the strippers’ actions remain somewhat justified throughout because of who they are harming. Hustlers is an enjoyable, thoughtful crime drama with complex themes, but Scafaria commits so strongly to inhabiting Destiny’s perspective that Ramona’s revenge-based morality ends up largely unquestioned — if not outright endorsed.
WhatsUpRI Rating: 4 out of 5
WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money