Review: “Hustlers”

4 out of 5 stars.

In “Hustlers,” the drama written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on the 2015 New York Magazine article titled “The Hustlers at Scores,” there are absolutely zero significant male characters.  Not since 1939’s “The Women” can I think of any other film that has managed to tell a purely feminist story in this fashion.  Sure, in “The Women” there are no men seen on screen throughout the entire movie, but in that film, the actions of the women still largely revolve around the actions of those offscreen men.  In “Hustlers,” we do see men on screen, but individually they don’t matter.  They come and go, many of them remaining nameless, or the ones whose names we do learn being merely mentioned in passing and quickly forgotten.  Collectively, they represent a wealthy and powerful piece of society that both objectifies women and treats them like dirt—and it’s this group of men that the titular hustlers determine to use their desires against them to take them down.

“Hustlers” opens in 2007 New York City.  Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a young girl who works at a strip club under the name Destiny to help support her grandmother, but she struggles to attract the right clients to turn a profit.  Then she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a more seasoned veteran who cleans up at the club every night.  Dorothy goes to her for advice and Ramona takes her under her wing, showing her all her moves and teaching her about what kind of customers to look for.  It isn’t long before Dorothy is living large, but 2008 rolls around, and the recession hits.  Suddenly, all the Wall Street bigwigs who frequent the club are no longer coming, resulting in Ramona and Dorothy losing not just their clients, but their lifestyles.

Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) shows Dorothy (Constance Wu) all her tricks

Fast forward a few years, and Dorothy is now a single mom struggling to make ends meet.  She has a chance encounter with Ramona, who lets her in on her new venture that she has embarked on with a couple of young women—Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart).  They essentially court men at bars, drug them with a mixture of ketamine and MDMA that results in them losing restraint and their memory, and take them to the club, where they steal their credit cards and run them up for thousands of dollars.  Their operation soon becomes quite the business, and Ramona and Dorothy are back on top—but how long can it last?

“Hustlers” breaks down just about every stereotype about strippers that is out there.  In fact, the nature of the work isn’t even the subject of the movie; the camera often cuts away before revealing too much, and there’s shockingly little nudity in the film.  This movie is about the planning, the intellect, and the close bonds formed between the women.  It is without a doubt a workplace drama—that workplace just happens to be a strip club.  It shows the power and control these women have over their bodies and the crap they put up with on a daily basis without ever objectifying them.  J-Lo’s entrance into the film is a pole dance that is depicted as almost balletic, and showcases her strength, power, and commanding presence before her character ever says a word.

Ramona and Dorothy’s story is told in flashbacks, as Dorothy in 2014 tells a reporter covering the story, Elizabeth, (played by Julia Stiles) her story.  These interludes occasionally disrupt the action at weird intervals, but they’re interesting.  Wu plays Dorothy as a woman who seems like she still has some stuff to hide, causing the viewer to question the validity of much of what we see in the flashbacks, as they are told from her point of view.

Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and Dorothy (Constance Wu)

“Hustlers” does sometimes feel like a female version of a “Wolf of Wall Street” type movie, but the criminal element is not what this film is primarily about.  It’s about the women: their thoughts, their dreams, their feelings, and their relationships not with men, but with each other.  Several scenes are devoted to the sisterly bond they all have with each other, but really in every scene their affection for each other is apparent.  Ramona and Dorothy are at the heart of this group; they may have their differences, but they still look out for each other.  These scenes of women lifting each other up are still so rare in movies, and “Hustlers” pulls it off brilliantly.  Wu gives an amazingly layered performance, but Lopez is the one running away with most of the attention, and for good reason.  Yes, J-Lo has acted in movies and television outside of her music career for years, but has she ever really been considered a serious actress?  No, but her performance in “Hustlers” is sure to change a lot of minds.  The supporting cast in brilliant as well, with Reinhart and Palmer pulling off a lot of the more comedic moments, and including cameos from the likes of Cardi B and Lizzo.

“Hustlers” may look like a shallow film on the surface, but it is anything but.  It is, in fact, an empowering feminist picture about women, by women, and starring women that finds the heart in characters that could easily have been portrayed as heartless, subverts expectations, and tells a really remarkable true story.  It isn’t perfect, but it comes pretty darn close.

Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated R.

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