'Hustlers': Film Review | TIFF 2019

JLo steals this smart, entertaining show.

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in Lorene Scafaria's film about a group of New York City strippers conning their Wall Street clientele.

Few trailer drops this year have generated as much buzz as the one for Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria's film — adapted from a 2015 New York Magazine story by Jessica Pressler — about a group of New York City strippers who con their wealthy clients out of thousands of dollars a night. Television powerhouse Shonda Rhimes wrote, in reaction to the preview: “Every five years or so there is a movie I am driven to actually leave my house to go see no matter what anyone says — this is that movie.”

Rhimes is 100 percent correct. After watching veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) deliver an unforgettable stage performance that firmly establishes her as the kingpin 15 minutes in, we know this is a movie made to be experienced with an audience.

Hustlers delivers on its hype while consistently doing the unexpected. Scafaria, whose last pic was the 2016 Susan Sarandon vehicle The Meddler, excels at immersing the audience in the world of sex work in clubs, quietly disabusing us scene by scene of any stereotypes about who these women are. Part workplace dramedy, part revenge fantasy, the film weaves together a series of satisfying, organic-feeling turns.

This is a movie about strippers running a con, yes, but it is also much more than that — it's an incisive commentary on women in the workplace, including breadwinning mothers, navigating an economy that disadvantages them. Surprisingly enough, it shares cinematic DNA with the 1981 juggernaut 9 to 5.

Hustlers is also a welcome addition to the collection of Hollywood movies about the 2008 financial crisis (The Big Short, The Queen of Versailles, Margin Call) in that Scafaria tells the story from the perspective of working-class women affected by the economic collapse, not Wall Street guys at the top.

The opening scene of the movie is the first day of work for Destiny (Constance Wu) and the camera movement is from her point of view, following her from the dressing room to the stage. Later, there’s another scene shot with almost the exact same camera movement, showing Destiny rushing home from a harrowing night with a client to take her daughter to school in their suburban neighborhood. It’s a poignant visual pairing that underscores the stakes for Destiny and other women like her.

When the 2008 financial crash hits, business at the club Destiny works at nosedives. Led by the enterprising Ramona, Destiny, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) take to upscale bars, where they spike drinks of their wealthy male targets with just enough ketamine and MDMA to make these men hand over their credit cards without totally blacking out. How things unfold from there should not be spoiled for those who want to see the movie without reading the article it's based on.

Wu delivers a sharp performance that confidently conveys Destiny's emotional vulnerabilities. It's a delight to see Cardi B and Lizzo play variations on their public and artistic personas, and Palmer and Reinhart do solid work.

But not enough can be written about how stunning Lopez is in perhaps her best performance to date. Playing Ramona with understated confidence, the actress creates a tough cookie who keeps things light; she doesn’t question the rules of the game — she has studied them so she can break them properly. Far from an audacious, real housewife type, she represents a group of hardworking single mothers across America quietly struggling to provide for their children. It’s a nuanced depiction rarely seen in crowd-pleasing films like this. (Only two lead roles went to a Latina actress age 45 or older in the 1,200 top-grossing box office movies from 2007-2018, and Lopez played them both.)

The film impressively somersaults past any stigma attached to stripping and sex work, emphasizing how the main characters are run-of-the-mill American workers regardless of their particular job. It’s not about convincing anyone that stripping is empowering or disempowering, or that hustling is or isn’t wrong; it’s about all the gray areas in between. Scafaria validates her heroines from the start by focusing on them as women whose internal struggles and friendships with each other are far more interesting than their obvious physical allure.

Some of the few complex depictions of sex workers we’ve seen in recent years have been on critically acclaimed television series like HBO's The Deuce and FX's AtlantaHustlers is a worthy big-screen addition. Without creating a utopia divorced from reality, the pic punches up in a way that is largely unexplored in film: Rich white men here play objects who are underdeveloped almost to the point of buffoonery. Their bodies are taken advantage of by the heroines of the movie, women whose legal options for real economic advancement are limited. The film wants us to see that what the women do isn’t nearly as important as why they do it.

From the strip club to the bars where they find their marks, the rooms where these women work are dimly lit, a visual statement of subtext. Scafaria is smart to use the interview between the journalist who originally broke this story (played here by Julia Stiles) and Destiny as a narrative framing device that makes the flashbacks and voiceover feel fresh, like they are happening in real-time.

Although the women of Hustlers are clearly stepping over a very thin, dark line between working the system and criminal behavior, you can’t help but root for them and all women who are tired of struggling financially and decide to use what they know to get ahead. It’s a classic underdog story about the kind of Americans people don’t often think of as self-made. With so much talk about the “forgotten working class” since the 2016 presidential election, Hustlers makes clear that women of color in cities are also a part of that group. In other words: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Gloria Sanchez Productions, STX Films
Distributor: STX Films

Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B
Writer-director: Lorene Scafaria
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Pamela Thur, Alex Brown, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Producers: Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Elbaum, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Benny Medina, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Lorene Scafaria
Director of photography: Todd Banhazl
Production designer: Jane Musky
Editor: Kayla Emter
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

Rated R, 110 minutes