Hustlers – Film Review
by David Turpin
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles
O ye, of little faith. If you weren’t holding out much hope for yet another ‘stripper movie’ – let alone one starring J. Lo – it gladdens your humble correspondent to report that writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. A clever, suspenseful comic drama involving a group of strippers – led by newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu) and queen bee Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, also a co-produer) – who concoct a scam to keep their heads above water in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Hustlers is a whole heap of fun, even for audiences who don’t automatically thrill to lines like: “Let’s get you out of those trainer heels and into a proper shoe”. In a landscape of bloated comic-book epics and worthy Oscar-bait – and at a point where those two things often appear to be merging into one – Hustlers offers that rare commodity: solid entertainment, served with a side of pleasing amorality and a core of essential decency. What’s not to like?
Scafaria’s chatty screenplay has an appealingly loose-limbed quality, ranging across time periods and allowing occasional digressions, while using an interview between Destiny and a WASP-ish journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) as an anchoring device. Visually, Scafaria (with cinematographer Todd Banhazi and editor Kayla Emter) unerringly seeks out the telling detail that makes the image – one of the ways in which the film’s depiction of a notionally ‘erotic’ subject swiftly marks itself out from generic (masculine) fantasies of the same milieu in everything from Exotica (1994) to The Sopranos (1999-2007). There’s an interesting comparison to be made between the rendering of the strip-club and Jane Campion’s depiction of a similar locale in In the Cut (2003): while the normally eagle-eyed Campion let her distaste for the setting push her images into unintelligible murk, Scafaria’s clear-eyed rendering finds the humour and humanity in this workplace – surely a more useful response, whatever one’s standing on the ethics of stripping as an ‘industry’.
The soundtrack is full of witty choices, even if – with a show-stopping spin of Scott Walker’s ‘Next’, or a cross-cutting montage of strippers and brokers set to Britney Spears ‘Gimme More’ – it’s also a reminder that wit and subtlety are not necessarily the same thing. That’s part of the appeal of Hustlers, though. Its ‘compare/contrast’ themes are plain as day, but they’re stated with directness, rather than with the kind of ‘this-is-for-the-people-who-will-get-it’ smirk that often passes for ‘cleverness’.
Most of all, the film is a showcase for two leading ladies – one an often-underestimated veteran; the other a star in the ascendant – whose casting is pitch perfect for their roles. As our entrée to this world and through-line for what transpires, Constance Wu brings interesting notes of steeliness that complicate the supposed ‘ingénue’ part. The film plays with some familiar tropes – the understudy who begins to eclipse the headliner; the benevolent protector who gradually shows his/her teeth – but the actresses make it work, particularly when it becomes clear that Scafaria is actually headed somewhere more humane that we might first have suspected.
And then there’s Lopez. At fifty years of age, she has never looked more bogglingly beautiful, and – without the girlish affectations that saw her through so many tepid rom-coms – she projects a coolly regal air. This correspondent lost count of the number of times the camera whip-panned to reveal her striding into view, lit like an ancient goddess and caressed with satiny slo-mo. That’s the kind of movie magic that never gets tired, because Lopez is a living, breathing special effect – sheer, self-made charisma – that no amount of millions can buy. She attacks every moment of this big, brassy role with a conviction that would have made her the queen of the Warner Bros. backlot circa 1946. In our diminished times the best we can hope for is a surprise Best Supporting Actress nod – and woe betide anyone who bets against her.
Naturally, there are weaknesses: the smaller roles tend to blend into the background (although Stiles gets one priceless reaction shot, and it’s always nice to see Mercedes Ruehl); the much-ballyhooed cameos from Cardi B and Lizzo are flimsy indeed; and a brief dream sequence may be one of the most on-the-nose ever committed to film. Never mind all that, because Hustlers is worth celebrating as a clever, fleet-footed mainstream entertainment for adults, at a time when such things are vanishingly rare. Fun, straightforward, and sincere without being preachy, it’s two hours of a good time in the company of some real pros – and unlike the heroines’ customers, you won’t feel cheated afterward.