What’s a girl gotta do to get an Oscar nomination round here? Ain’t that the million-dollar question right now? But setting aside for a moment the systemic and cultural failings of the movie business, and focusing solely on Lorene Scafaria’s sensational crime drama Hustlers, it is a question for which I simply cannot find an answer. Brilliantly written and directed by Scafaria, and featuring a career best performance from Jennifer Lopez, we will look back in years to come and shake our heads at how overlooked this was by the major awards.
Adapted from a New York Magazine article, Hustlers tells the incredible true-life tale of the ex-strippers who took a small slice of revenge against the Wall Street players who bankrupted America. Constance Wu plays Dorothy, a stripper going by the stage-name Destiny, struggling to make ends meet and look after her grandmother. Scafaria takes great care in portraying Destiny’s life, and the lives of the other strippers realistically, authentically, and with a level of humanity they are so rarely afforded in pop culture. These are real women, just making a living.
Destiny is taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) a more experienced girl at the club, who is introduced to Destiny (and the audience) in a sequence that will leave your jaw on the floor. Ramona explains that the majority of their clientele are the Wolves of Wall Street, and so she teaches Destiny how to make some real money in this business. And they do. The two women forge a beautiful friendship as well as a lucrative partnership in the club, and all is well in the world. Then 2008 happens, and everything changes.
The global financial crash ends their careers at the club, but sets them on a new path – taking back from the grasping male world that has kept them down. Ramona and Destiny, along with fellow ex-dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) start hustling rich men they meet in bars. They drug them and fleece them, with their rationale being no one is going to admit to getting drunk and spending five-grand in the back room of a strip club.
Wu and Lopez are simply outstanding at the heart of this film, with the former anchoring everything with a terrific and heartfelt performance, whilst the latter reminds the whole world what an absolute superstar she is. Lopez’s Ramona is a brilliantly layered performance, full of emotion, humour, magnetism, and genuine star quality. The film belongs to her, and it would be wonderful if Hustlers marked the start of a whole new era in her career of great roles worthy of her talent.
As well as being a fantastically entertaining film, Hustlers is also a film with a lot to say, and it does so incisively and critically. It shows us a world we’ve not really seen from a woman’s perspective before, and speaks truthfully about gender and how that intersects with capitalism and the pursuit of the American Dream. Above all, Hustlers never shies away from the thorny moral conundrums at the centre of the film. Do the hustlers deserve what they take, and do the hustled deserve what they get?
Scafaria stages the drama across three distinct timelines – the pre-crash fun, the post-crash hustling, and the post-hustling framing device featuring Destiny being interviewed about what went down. The structure works brilliantly, giving the film a classic crime thriller vibe. Gorgeously shot, and making exquisite use of sound, Hustlers is a visual and stylistic delight. The comparisons with Scorsese and Soderbergh are not without merit. The only difference is they would have been Oscar nominated.
The Blu-ray release of Hustlers comes with a fascinating feature length commentary from writer-director Lorene Scafaria, and a short piece from the red carpet premiere at TIFF.
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B, Mercedes Ruehl Director: Lorene Scafaria Writer: Lorene Scafaria Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 109 mins Release Date: 20th January 2020