“This whole country is a strip club. You got people throwing the money, and people doing the dance.”-Jennifer Lopez as Ramona
Hustlers is adapted from the 2015 New York magazine article titled “The Hustlers at Scores,” which was written by Jessica Pressler. The film revolves around a former New York City stripper named Dorothy (Constance Wu) who tells ‘a journalist (Julia Styles) about her time working for friend and mentor Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). It was in 2007 that Dorothy and Ramona met at a strip club. Dorothy was impressed by Ramona’s performance, and Ramona offered to train her. As a result of Ramona’s mentoring, Dorothy soon becomes one of the most successful strippers at the club, that is until the Great Recession hit in fall 2008. Since the men who regularly spend the most money at the club are CEOs and bankers who are either out of work or laying low as a result of the market meltdown, Dorothy and Ramona come up with a side hustle that involves drugging clients, stealing their credit card numbers and maxing them out.
This is an entertaining, thought provoking and overall excellent film. The performances by Comstance Wu and Jennifer Lopez are certainly deserving of the awards season buzz they are generating, and Julia Styles also turns in solid work. The trailers tended to highlight the presence of Lizzo and Cardi B as well, but their appearance here are rather brief. They have a couple scenes in the first act and then disappear for the rest of the film. This really is Wu and Lopez’s show, and they have amazing chemistry. I have to admit the only other Jennifer Lopez movie I’ve seen is Anaconda, which I only recommend if you are looking for a cheesy B movie that will make you laugh (unintentionally) a lot. Here, Lopez gives a layered performance which ranks up there with some of the iconic anti-heroes of our time. Hustlers is to stripping what Breaking Bad is to meth, and the performances at the story’s core are incredibly effective at creating sympathy for our protagonist without fully justifying all of her choices.
As much as I liked the performances, I really need to single out the directing by Lorene Scafaria. I have not seen either of her previous two films, but I’m interested in checking them out. I love how this film was shot. Scafaria and her team show off impressive technical chops throughout that always enhance the content of the script rather than getting in its way. There is a long take with absence of decoupage near the beginning in which we follow Dorothy through the club. We hear the loud music and see many of the strippers at work, but we are also constantly hearing men make lewd comments to Dorothy or her co-workers. One slob gets her attention by shouting “Hey, Lucy Liu.” Shortly after this segment, Dorothy rides home in a cab, and we hear two radio hosts in the middle of a quite sexist discussion. The juxtaposition effectively emphasizes the lewd behavior by men that frequently goes unchecked, not just in strip clubs, but every level of society.
There are many nifty stylistic choices Scafaria makes over the film’s nearly two hour running time that I’ll let you discover for yourself. What’s consistent about all the visuals though is how much they dispatch the male gaze. One imagines an alternate version of this film, a less effective version to be clear, where the composition frequently resorts to cheap close ups of breasts and buttocks. Given the film’s setting, of course there are many shots of scantily clad women and even some brief nudity. Yet every shot, while depicting an industry where women are exploited and degraded, avoids falling into the trap of exploiting these characters further through stylistic choices. For example, when Ramona demonstrates some of her moves to Dorothy, Scafaria mostly employs wide shots. The content of every frame is dictated by character and reaction shots, not by a desire to cater to audience members who are present only for cheap titillation. Anyone showing up just for that will be disappointed. The composition handles nudity and skimpy outfits in a similar manner to Netflix’s GLOW. They’re present, but mot the emphasis. The camera has other priorities.
In terms of flaws, the film has a few, mostly in its middle act. The midsection does lag a bit, particularly due to a few too many scenes of the women working their side hustle. Many of these scenes are necessary and move the plot forward. But at one point the plot feels stuck in a lure, drug, steal, repeat motif. It doesn’t stay there for too long, thankfully. The final act arrives and then each of these hustle scenes starts to become more tense as the dynamics between Dorothy, Ramona and the rest of the crew begin to change. The midsection also spends a few minutes too many depicting Dorothy and Ramona’s continuing friendship and the ways they are spending the money they’re stealing. None of these scenes are bad but they do go on noticeably long and mess with the pacing a bit.
I could talk a lot longer about this Hustlers, and expect me to say a lot more about it towards the end of the year. It’s a contender, to say the least, for my year end 10 best list, and also deserves to be in the awards season conversation. I hope this will not be another example, like last year’s excellent Leave No Trace, of a film helmed by a female director that is mostly ignored come Globes/Critics Choice/Oscar time.