Hustlers Movie Review: Honour, camaraderie, and laughter among thieves
A solid film that blends a certain lightness to a survival story filled with friendship, manipulation, criminality, humour, and pathos
Hustlers is based on New York Magazine’s 2015 nonfiction piece written by Editor, Jessica Pressler. Set around the time of the 2008 financial crisis and beyond, this tale, inspired by true events, follows the lives of strippers working for an expensive New York City strip club.
The most impressive part about Lorene Scafaria’s engaging film is its believability. Very few things seem overdone or impossible to take at face value. And despite its premise being rooted firmly in the lives of women who provide visual, and partly, physical gratification for paying clientele through stripping, pole dancing, and private lap dances, it has a lightness to it I did not expect. This is not to suggest that its emotionally charged moments aren’t worth investing in. All I’m saying is that it isn’t a dreary, depressing, and dark narrative under the circumstances – after the glare, the stage, the floating dollar bills, and the predominantly entitled men fade from view.
This aforementioned paying clientele consist of three types (mostly from Wall Street), according to veteran star stripper, Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). She breaks it down for her doe-eyed protégé Destiny/Dorothy (Constance Wu) in the simplest way she can: first, there are the low-level executives who have little to no power (this type is easy to manipulate as they may be either lonely or have self-esteem issues); the second kind includes the regular customers (belonging to middle management) who have a fair share of power and money, but with limits; the third set of clients are the ones at the very top – those who see everything as a business transaction.
Ramona clubs CEOs and axe murders in this last category, driving home the point that these men can pretty much get away with anything without suffering consequences. Ramona tells Destiny that this last type is her ticket to the big bucks. The advice is straightforward: “All you need to do is to figure out who you’re dealing with”; “He should be drunk enough to use his credit card but sober enough to sign a cheque.” Things go well for a time, with Ramona leading the way and Destiny following suit, but the subprime crisis of 2008 is just about to take hold. And life as they know it is never going to be the same again.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart
The film’s authenticity apart, it is the camaraderie and sisterhood between the women that is telling. ‘You need to take care of your own’ vibes are felt throughout the story. Once Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, the latter is put at ease. Her fellow strippers are more supportive than before. It is evident that Ramona is the boss, but even in her somewhat-manipulative mentorship role, the genuine fondness for her crew (Destiny, Mercedes, and Annabelle) is beyond reproach.
Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona Vega is a layered personality who justifies her actions for the sake of survival and adaptability. Her attitude does not dim even after Destiny starts suspecting her intricate designs. Lopez convinces the audience with a performance filled with depth, insight, and laughter, that she is a modern-day Robin Hood of sorts. She’s not exactly heroic or anti-heroic, but one thing is for certain – she is a woman to be taken seriously. Not for an instant (even in her lowest lows) is she prone to self-loathing or bitterness.
Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy provides the perfect foil and voice of reason for an ‘all guns blazing’ Ramona. It would be easy to discount Wu’s understated style for Lopez’s power in Hustlers, but that may prove to be a mistake. Much of the film’s real feel comes from the former.
Amid the depiction of harsh realities, two or three of Hustlers’ humorous scenes stay with me. One has Ramona and Destiny testing out the right cocktail of Ketamine and MDMA to use on their would-be customers. The other involves team member Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) in stressful situations. It doesn’t matter if the gang is driving an-almost comatose client to the hospital or whether the police is knocking on her door, her go-to move is to retch with abandon, and apologise after.
As for the criticism, Julia Stiles is rather unconvincing in her role as Elizabeth (the journalist based on the New York Magazine editor). It seems quite implausible for such an experienced writer/reporter to gape in surprise or awe while interviewing her primary source. One would expect her to be less naïve, surely.
Despite all it has going for it, Hustlers is not a masterpiece. What it is, is a good and solid film that blends a certain lightness to a survival story filled with friendship, manipulation, criminality, humour, and pathos.