Sold as a Soderbergh mash-up, a light mix of Out of Sight’s Jennifer Lopez performance, the Ocean’s series’ charismatic swindling, and Magic Mike’s stripteases, Hustlers is as misrepresented as its exotic dancers calling themselves models. But perhaps for the better.
More accurately, Hustlers is a Goodfellas pastiche gone naturalistic, taking a lead’s recollection of their increasing criminal uprising among friends and setting it to some fun musical montages (tracks by Frankie Valli, Bob Seger, and Lorde among them) and thrilling camera push-ins. It takes a while for its dance to really get grinding on you, but once it does, it’s hard to deny that it deserves some cash thrown at it.
Shoving its bountiful source material in our undeserving face, the film leans hard into the in-depth Jessica Pressler’s report it’s based on—both in tying the events to the 2008 Wall Street collapse (The Big Short director Adam McKay is not entirely surprisingly a producer) and in framing the entire thing. Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu stars as Destiny, a strip club dancer looking for more money. She finds that—and an comfortably motherly friendship—by way of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, doing the best work she’s done since her lull of a Ray Liotta procedural and likewise threadbare line of Kohl’s clothes), a seasoned but absolutely outstanding dancer (Lopez is also doing some of her best work physically, P.S.) who shows her the ropes of milking rich Wall Street guys of their not-so-hard-earned cash.
Once the economic crash hits (the film begins in 2007), only a select few of those on-the-floor assholes and CEOs still have their cash, so Ramona comes up with a new idea: finding some rich marks, getting them drunk, drugging them with Ketomine and MDMA, and charging their credit cards with exorbitant amounts.
Assuming you don’t identify with Wall Street turds, it’s a fairly victimless crime. But, if you read the article, you know that this gyrating, self-serving Robin Hood act was not to last. And, almost a decade after the fact, reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, clearly filling in for Pressler) is interviewing Destiny about the entire story as a meta framing device.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria previously wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist before directing her own scripts with the likes of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler. Hustlers continues her evolution of shrugging off the twee—and the too-obviously written scripts, even—for something that feels quite real. Cinematographer Todd Banhazl deserves some credit for that in his purposefully inelegant photography, but Scafaria clearly gets the big prize for drawing such humanizing performances out of Lopez, Wu (who felt stilted in the otherwise nice Crazy Rich Asians), and such rapper-turned-actresses as Keke Palmer, Cardi B, and Lizzo (Lili Reinhart and veteran Academy Award-winner Mercedes Ruehl are also quite good).
In the end, while it’s not such a Soderbergh as teased, hell if it’s not a better Ocean’s 8 lady-scam than was previously delivered. Like any good striptease, it takes a while before its playful temptations escalate, but the payoff is all the greater for it.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Runtime: 110 minutes
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart