Hustlers is a female-led crime drama/comedy which depicts the true story of some New York strippers who decide to take advantage of the Wall Street men that arrive at their strip joint by spiking their drinks and maxing out their credit cards when they’re passed out. Knowing this plot going in, I felt a bit conflicted about the nature of the content of this film. On the surface, it seems like a throwaway comedy that the studio made to get Jennifer Lopez back in the game, and to make money off of Cardi B and Lizzo’s name. While both of these motivations may not be far from the truth, thankfully the filmmakers have far more to say than the trailers are letting on. However, the message still gets somewhat muddled by a lack of investment with most supporting characters and a formula that feels ripped straight out of Goodfellas.
The main reason Hustlers even picks off of the ground to begin with is the clear enthusiasm and passion dripping off every shot. From the first couple scenes, it is clear that this is not slapped together in any way, and that director/writer Lorene Scafaria is here to tell a story and make a point. Near the beginning of the film, she does a particularly good job in developing Constance Wu’s main character, Melody, through her actions and the way she handles herself as she slogs through day-to-day life. However, once Lopez makes her dramatic entrance early on, the character building truly starts as viewers see Wu and Lopez start to build a tumultuous relationship.
The two main actresses are the best part of this movie character-wise and acting-wise. Lopez delivers the best performance the world has seen from her in years as a movie star, managing to keep the audience guessing as to whether her character cares about her companions or is manipulating them for personal gain. Whichever one it is, Lopez is confident and sleek throughout and only lets her emotions show during integral character moments. Wu gives a much more open and shy performance, which, given the audience is seeing the events through her eyes, is perfect for this narrative. Lopez and Wu are polar opposites in that regard, and their friction is why the movie never grinds to a halt or feel its length.
To go even further, I wish the film had sacrificed other characters’ screen time for more development of the main couple, for everyone else in the movie is disposable. Certain other characters, such as Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer’s roles, are introduced like they are major parts of the story, but only end up becoming side notes to give the audience some comic relief during the more suspenseful scenes. At times, Hustlers gives off the feel of an ensemble piece, but the atmosphere never completes itself because the viewers feel nothing for most of the players caught up into this situation. Too little effort is given to all of the supporting characters to warrant them sharing such a large portion of this movie with the real stars of the show.
Thankfully, Scafaria is smart enough to narrow the focus down when it is integral to the story, and the more personal scenes are the best scenes in the film. Too much time is spent showing the strippers drugging men and getting money, and not enough time is spent showing what they really care about. To be fair, Hustlers couldn’t have gone without certain scenes, but when the movie finishes I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length from all of the main women.
However, Scafaria isn’t here for the characters, so it is easy to see why she focuses more on the bigger picture regarding the relationship between strippers and the Wall Street men–the wealthy and the disadvantaged. It is clear that she wants this story to be a small scale version of this type of relationship spread throughout society–whether it be politicians and constituents, boss and worker, or even cop and civilian, the United States has a system of power that takes advantage of the weak, and Scafaria exposes that with her example of Wall Street brokers and strippers. Hustlers depicts the lower echelon of society turning the tables on the upper and creating their own gain despite how American society works, and in this way, it is truly a tale of empowerment. Yes, the methods are unconventional to say the least, which is a definite roadblock, but the message still stands and is worth pondering.
Without the social commentary, Hustlers would be far more forgettable than it ends up being, for the structure is one we have all seen before in multiple Martin Scorcese crime films. But Scafaria’s intent and the ethical debate she brings up make it worth a watch, which is more than I thought I’d be saying going in. It most likely won’t stay with audiences for too long and isn’t quite good enough to contend for awards season buzz, but Hustlers challenges many of Hollywood and society’s norms, which is more than most movies can dream of accomplishing.
I give Hustlers a B.