HUSTLERS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Lorene Scarfaria

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Jay Oakerson, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, Marcy Richardson, Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Frank Whaley, Wai Ching Ho, Devin Ratray, Usher.

The Vixens Of Wall Street?

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers (2019)

A group of strippers set out to fleece Wall Street clients following the great financial collapse of 2008. Hustlers is based on the article The Hustlers At Scores, which was written by journalist Jessica Pressler and published in New York Magazine. The article has provided the source material for this film written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, etc). And while the material may sound salacious and tacky, a bit like Striptease or Paul Verhoevens’ sleazy Showgirls, Hustlers is actually a little boring and dull.

Destiny (Constance Wu, from Crazy Rich Asians, etc) is an ingenue stripper who finds work at Moves, a New York club frequented by wealthy stock brokers based in Wall Street. Initially inexperienced, Destiny struggles to make ends meet, as the DJs, bar staff and manager all take their cut from her earnings. Destiny is also looking after her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). Things change when she is taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez in, arguably, a career best performance), the veteran strip artist at the club. She teaches Destiny the finer art of pole dancing, explains what to look for in clients and shows her a few tricks about how to milk the clients for as much money as possible with little risk. A friendship quickly develops between the two women.

But then the great financial collapse happens, and business begins to slow down. The Wall Street bankers were the bread and butter of the club. Now, their customers are mainly middle-aged drunks, and the club loses its allure. Ramona hits on an idea to earn money at the expense of their former clients, and sets up her own private sideline. She and Destiny and a couple of other friends meet wealthy clients, bring them back to the club, spike their drinks and then scam them out of their credit card details in order to afford a better lifestyle. The money rolls in, and Destiny becomes rich beyond her wildest dreams. They drug the clients, and when their victims are unconscious they max out their credit cards. The girls justify their predatory behaviour saying that these cowboy investors were responsible for the financial collapse that ruined so many lives.

The story unfolds largely as a series of extended flashbacks as Destiny talks to a fictitious reporter (Julia Stiles) who is investigating the fall out from the scam, which resulted in arrests and charges, but this clunky and overused narrative device is probably the weakest aspect of the film.

The relationship between Destiny and Ramona forms the main focus of the film, which explores themes of friendship, ambition, gender politics, capitalism, greed, trust, feminine empowerment. Hustlers is certainly stylishly staged and shot by cinematographer Todd Banhazl (Dirty Computer, etc), whose flashy visual style obviously takes inspiration from Scorsese’s Casino and his own work shooting music videos. There are some gorgeous costumes designed by Mitchell Travers (The Strange Ones, etc) that add to the film’s visual aesthetic. The film is not exploitive, as Scarfaria concentrates mainly on the female characters and their relationship and brings a female perspective to this world. She avoids that unnecessary air of voyeurism that a male director would have brought to similar material.

But there are a few too many montages of the girls working their clients and the material does become a little repetitive. Also, the film is too long for what it has too say, and Scafaria could have tightened up the material in the edit.

Scarfaria has assembled a fine ensemble to bring the characters to life, but this is essentially Lopez’s show. Lopez turns in one of her best performances since her heyday in the 90s when she appeared in films like Out Of Sight, and she is perfectly cast as the seductive, confident Ramona, a diva completely in charge of her environment. This is a role Lopez was born to play and allows her to stretch her acting chops beyond the formulaic string of romantic comedies she has found herself stuck in over recent years. Wu builds on her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians with another solid performance here that easily captures Destiny’s vulnerability, insecurity and essential air of decency, and she serves as the moral conscience of the story. Lili Reinhart (from tv series Riverdale, etc) is also good as Annabelle, the youngest and most innocent of the larcenous troupe. Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King, etc) brings a tough edge to her role as Mother, the club’s den mother.

★★★

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