“This is a story about control. My control.”
The opening to Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit are the first words we hear before director/writer Lorene Scafaria’s retelling of “The Hustlers at Scores” begins.
Hustlers is the story of control, something that is desired above all else, including the lavish money, fur coats and new iPhones our main characters flaunt over the film’s running time. It’s what Dorothy (Constance Wu), who also goes by Destiny, is desperately chasing. She longs to have the control of her own situation, so she can care for her elderly grandmother and go shopping, occasionally. The year is 2007, and Dorothy is just scraping by as a stripper, watching others succeed and walk away with large sums of money. But everything changes when she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, incredible) perform a captivating routine set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Ramona takes Dorothy under wing and teaches her the ways of stripping. Soon the two roll through the club like “hurricanes,” making enough money to not just take care of ailing relatives but afford the finer things in life, and then some.
But as anyone with knowledge of the mid 2000’s will tell you, nobody was going to stay at the top for very long. The financial crash of 2008 strikes, and soon the women at the club are forced to find other sources of income as the money that once rained down on them during their routines dries up. Dorothy is now a mother and fails at finding any work outside of stripping while Ramona lands a job at Old Navy with some help from Mercedes (Keke Palmer, once again proving her strength as a comedienne). Both women find their way back to the strip club, and each other. From there, the two make the decision to go “fishing” but with a twist: Lure those lingering rich men, drug them, bring them back to club and run their card while they’re knocked out while taking a cut of the profits. They’re joined by Mercedes and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) before eventually expanding and outsourcing their operation. Then, once again, things come crashing down.
Based on the marketing material, I was expecting Hustlers to be fun in the style of 2017’s Girls Trip. The involvement of Cardi B and Lizzo was heavily publicized, with Cardi’s “Money” soundtracking the trailer. It seemed like a flashy, star driven ensemble with some fun moments. And it is. But the true brilliance of Hustlers lies in its effectiveness in being both an Ocean’s 8-esque romp and an empathetic look at those who were left scrambling in the wake of the financial crisis. Scafaria’s script deftly walks that fine line, never leaning too far in either direction. And while she empathizes with our band of thieves she never exonerates them either. The story is framed through an interview between Dorothy and Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, the film’s anchor) that will eventually turn into the article the film is adapted from. We see Dorothy grapple with her decisions as she recounts the events that brought her here, and are left to draw our own conclusions. It’s a masterclass of screenwriting and directing from a writer and director who has proven she excels at exploring difficult situations and emotions before (seek out 2016’s brilliant and undervalued, The Meddler).
Scafaria deserves endless praise for bringing this story to the screen, but it’s hard to imagine the film succeeding without its crown jewel: Lopez’s career defining performance. What else can be said that hasn’t been said already? After the film’s explosive Toronto Film Festival premiere, there was talk of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. When buzz like this pops up, sometimes it’s easy to be skeptical. The Oscar game is rarely about the strength of the individual film/performance, and more about the strength of PR team and narrative of the studio can hype up.
That said, Lopez shouldn’t just be nominated, she should absolutely win. It’s a performance that I can’t imagine being given by anyone else; Lopez dominates every single scene she’s in, finding new ways to captivate us and give us a peek into who Ramona is, whether she’s on the pole or offering her fur coat while she smokes a cigarette on the roof (easily the film’s money shot, though the cinematography in this movie is to die for). Few possess the kind of insane charisma a star of Lopez’s caliber does, but she uses it to her advantage, fully immersing herself into this role in a way she hasn’t since Selena or Out of Sight. It’s the kind of performance the Oscars should reward more often, one that isn’t written or created with the intent to be an awards showcase, but is based purely on the strength of Lopez’s performance alone.
At its core, Hustlers is a love story between two women doing whatever they can to succeed in a world where the cards are stacked against them. Though there’s plenty of entertaining set pieces and hilarious moments, the film is at its best in the quieter moments shared between Ramona and Dorothy; Wu and Lopez absolutely kill it in a moment shared in an empty diner after their characters find one another after the financial crisis hits. Much like Ramona at the film’s end, we’re left wondering what if? In a fairer world, would things have been different for these women?
It’s certainly a fair question. But again, Scafaria isn’t interested in casting judgement even if she feels for her protagonists. It’s the kind of gentle touch I can’t imagine coming from a male filmmaker (all the more reason to let women have the opportunity to tell their own stories). In Hustlers, she has crafted the biggest surprise of the year, one that manages to entertain and pull at your heartstrings (I’m not embarrassed to admit I teared up). All hail the emergence of a new American classic.