Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
A few enterprising strippers get together to scam a bunch of arrogant Wall Streeters and make loads of cash. This is the catchy hook of writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s HUSTLERS, the literally ripped-from-the-headlines story about a group of women who did just that. Their shortcut to the American Dream was achieved through intelligence and sultry charm. Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” the picture’s rapturous energy crackles, sparkles, and dazzles. Scorsese in stilettos, GOODFELLAS slathered in frosty lip gloss and body glitter, this is a must-see Girl’s Night Out movie.
Destiny (Constance Wu) is just barely scraping by at her new job stripping at a club. Her self-esteem is at rock bottom, having to suffer racist, blowhard patrons calling her “Lucy Liu.” By the time her shift is done, she’s greased more wheels at the establishment instead of netting better take-home pay. Once she meets glamorous Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) – a colleague at the club who seduces the clientele with her banging body, incredible athleticism (aka. bouncy splits) and confidence – her world changes for the better. Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, teaching her the art of the striptease, but even better, how to read and manipulate men. This empowerment, along with the crazy cash influx, gives Destiny the boost she desperately needed for survival.
However, the financial bubble bursts, leaving them to toil in the very unfriendly world outside club walls for a few years. Ramona gets a job in retail, working for an unsympathetic boss (Jon Glaser). Destiny, now a single mom desperate to make ends meet, is forced move back in with her Grandma (Wai Ching Ho) to support her baby girl. With the stripping scene imploded, Ramona brings Destiny in on a get-rich-quick scheme: drug wealthy unsuspecting marks and max out their credit cards at the club. They’d each take a cut, and their hapless victims would think they had a hot evening. The dynamic duo even ropes in former colleagues Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to aid in this plan. As it does, their business model balloons bigger than they could imagine and, of course, that’s where the troubles begin.
Scafaria’s pastiche is an enticing mix of cinéma vérité (she thanks Éric Rohmer in the end credits) and mob movie inspiration. The camera tracks Destiny’s movements through the club with a grounded sense of realism. Authenticity is also found in the glimpses of these gals’ big personalities backstage, the chaos reflected in their mirrored dressing rooms with costumes and makeup haphazardly strewn about.
Supporting players Lizzo, who plays the flute, and Cardi B, who yells and speaks frankly about sexual self-satisfaction, give the picture a certain pizazz. Destiny and Ramona wrestle with wads of hundreds stuffed into their thigh-high boots like it’s DeNiro and Stone tussling with an overstuffed safe deposit box in CASINO. Destiny doesn’t quite sink as low as GOODFELLAS’ coked-out Henry Hill, but her night attempting to keep her sanity together amidst the escalating madness is in line with his struggle. Though the narrative follows an industry-standard rise and fall arc (a la WALL STREET, where Ramona is the Gordon Gekko to Destiny’s Bud Fox), it’s done in fishnets and pasties and seduces us with character-driven work by leads Wu and Lopez (who delivers her best work since OUT OF SIGHT). Lopez imbues Ramona’s steadfast spirit with warmth and cunning wit. She fashions her as the encouraging, nurturing friend we’d all love to have.
Despite their bad deeds, these gals’ sisterhood is genuinely empowering. It’s inspiring to see women banding together to support other women, even if they’re committing crimes on unsuspecting men. Scafaria captures female friendship as a multi-faceted dynamic, showing the complications and complexities within, without making anyone the villain. She shoots through the lens of empathy and understanding. They make human errors in judgment and have natural relationship strife.
There are a few flaws in this diamond, however. There’s an unnecessary wrap-around device involving reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) interviewing Destiny and Ramona that lacks the innovation that Scafaria’s subjects have in spades. Identity isn’t much of an issue for Destiny. Though we hear her Grandma and a few other people – including Ramona – refer to her birth name Dorothy, there’s not much air given to her struggle to balance her roles at home and work. One awkward elementary school drop-off sporting a bloodied, revealing tank top doesn’t inner-conflict make. The line about how their male victims weren’t eager to report that they’d been taken by a bunch of women comes very late in the picture. Rather, it should’ve been dropped by Dorothy (and not a cop) by the mid-way point, so as to both let the sexual politics of their actions sink in and quell any audience questions about how they were able to get away with this scam for years.
With a soundtrack that brilliantly mixes female anthems (Janet Jackson’s “Control,” Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”) and club classics (Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)”) alongside a small handful of Frédéric Chopin’s differently numbered “Etudes,” Scafaria has a fine-cut gem on her hands.
HUSTLERS opens on September 13.