It would be easy to dismiss “Hustlers” as nothing more than just the J. Lo stripper movie. The film’s first trailer shows women dancing, partying and scamming their way to fur coats and fancy outfits, with a little bit of drama sprinkled in between. It even highlights celebrity icons like Cardi B and Lizzo as if they’re major players in the film.
What it doesn’t show is the incredible performances, gritty suspense and technical achievements that make “Hustlers” one of the year’s best films.
It’s more than just the flashy teaser – it’s an empowering story centered around friendship, self-preservation and revenge.
Based on a real life New York Magazine article, “Hustlers” follows the exploits of Destiny (Constance Wu), Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and their crew of strippers who spent years swindling white collar Wall Street suits out of thousands of dollars.
When Destiny arrives on her first day at one of New York’s hottest strip clubs, it’s clear she’s in over her head. Seasoned veteran and club celebrity Ramona takes notice and brings Destiny under her wing – or in this case, oversized fur coat. Ramona trains Destiny in the art of the pole, teaming up with her in several routines and sharing even the most elite clients with her new apprentice. Destiny quickly climbs the ranks and soon enough she’s wearing her own furs and driving her own Escalade, but everything comes crashing down with the stock market when the 2008 financial crisis strikes.
Even the Wall Street scumbags are pinching pennies, and the girls’ club runs dry. Normal nights on the pole can no longer can no longer pay the bills, much less support their lavish lifestyles. After a fall from grace, Ramona hatches a plan to get back on top and convinces Destiny to join her. They recruit former coworkers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and together the team begins to spike the drinks of unsuspecting men with a concoction of MDMA and ketamine before bringing them to the club and maxing out their credit cards.
Just like that, the women go from coworkers to sisters, and bottom feeders to raking in the cash. But just like the fragile economy that put Ramona and Destiny at the bottom in the first place, their scheme can’t last forever, either. When Ramona gets reckless and starts filling the crew with untrustworthy members and targets, the police catch wind of their operation.
As suspenseful and intense as the film’s story is, let’s get one thing straight: there is no “Hustlers” without J. Lo.
Out of nowhere, Lopez instantly inserted herself into the Best Actress race thanks to her magnetic and charismatic portrayal of Ramona. She’s simultaneously tender and brash, protective and coldblooded, careless and calculating. Lopez brings an extraordinary level of complexity and nuance to a film that could easily have fallen flat without the perfect lead. Lopez is the powerhouse of the film, and it’s far more than her famous figure that steals every scene.
But that’s not to say Wu doesn’t hold her own. While Lopez may captivate audiences, Wu’s character undergoes a greater arc. Destiny transforms from a wide-eyed rookie into a cutthroat criminal, and Wu nails every step of the transition. Throughout the film it’s clear to see Destiny becoming more comfortable with her wrongdoings and begin to justify her actions, and as she does this, Wu comes out of her shell more and more. Suddenly, Destiny isn’t the scared puppy following Ramona around, but instead she’s a badass willing to confront her former mentor.
One of the most impressive things about “Hustlers” is how compelling and suspenseful it is, especially considering that it’s a story over five years old. Although this isn’t a story as well known as other true crime films or biopics, it’s still one whose ending is revealed in the trailer. Going into the theater, audiences know the women will be caught and punished, and they know an article was written documenting their crimes.
The ability to maintain this intrigue is due in large part to writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s storytelling methods. Scafaria begins the film with an interview between Destiny and Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), the author of the New York Magazine article, and intermittently returns to these conversations as Destiny recaps the history of their operation. Scafaria’s Scorsese-esque decision to integrate present-day narration with past events helps to provide an omniscient look at the past, and provides a sense of suspense as audiences are forced to wonder where each of the characters is today.
It may seem minor, but another of the film’s most impressive and, simply put, fun elements is its soundtrack. Not the score, but the mid-2000s jams packed throughout the film. Whether it’s R&B inside the club, or even contrasting classical piano sonatas, every single song fits perfectly. However, none works better than Lorde’s hit song, “Royals,” which is arguably one of the best needle-drop moments of the year.
It’s truly impressive when a film is able to take characters like Ramona and Destiny, people who have committed objectively wrong crimes, and still compel audiences to root for them. “Hustlers” is able to do just that, thanks to a career-best performance from Lopez and masterful direction by Safaria.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.