If you only saw the trailer from Hustlers, the flashy cash throwing, fake meltdowns outside of a hospital, and of course incredible athletics of Jennifer Lopez on the pole might lead you to assume that writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is a female version of The Hangover. Instead, Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the Universe) has crafted a story of survival and friendship that more accurately compares to classics like The Apartment. An enviably stacked cast and gorgeous cinematography by Todd Banhazl (Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer) come together to present a heartbreaking story of the distance some Americans travel to get their piece of the American dream.
At the center of the story resides Destiny (Constance Wu). Destiny’s elderly grandma accumulated a lot of debt, her parents disappeared from her life when she was a child, and all that stands between the little family she has left and homelessness is her ability to work as a stripper. For her, being an exotic dancer pays better than anything she could get with her GED-level education. It’s legal, and it allows her to help her grandma from pawning all of her jewelry.
One of the truths Hustlers reveals is that all strippers do not receive equal treatment. Like all sex work controlled by men, a large percentage of what exotic dancers earn in a night has to be paid out to the club. As Destiney ends her first night at a new club, she has to pay the bouncer, the club owner, the DJ and the bartender. She takes home a few hundred bucks. Better money than she would have made if she spent the night waitressing, but still not enough.
Enter Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). If Ramona showed up at the World Pole Dance Competition, all of the other competitors would go home. She’s confident in a way that makes everyone fall in love with her. In Lopez’s best role since Enough, she brings the everyday diva to Ramona. She’s approachable, but not stoppable. Her clothes are the finest money can buy, she struts like a model with a fresh contract, but she isn’t cold. Her smile is luminous and makes her easy to approach. At the same time, crossing her would be a terrible mistake.
Lopez and Wu are dynamic together. Their back and forth works when they’re fighting, when they’re figuring out how to best cook up their drug cocktail, and when they’re sitting around the Christmas table. Even the gaggle of women who join their crew feed into that energy, culminating in a wonderful ensemble. Rich in character portrayal and energy, the crew is wonderful to watch, even as they systematically destroy lives.
Both in her script and the way she films the story, Scafaria weaves together the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes. She does this without sacrificing the focus of the film. The audience knows nothing of these men but that they are wealthy and want to roll with beautiful women. Their inability to walk on their own two feet, the slurred speech, the vomiting and passing out immediately? That raises concerns about what these women are doing to these unsuspecting men.
At the same time, the financial fear perpetually knocking on the womens’ door makes their actions seem almost reasonable. Immediately after the 2008 crash, the investment bankers who once paid their salary became cash shy. But they didn’t stop being rich, and they didn’t go to jail. Nearly every American, regardless of political affiliation, felt betrayed. Scafaria never suggests justified vengeance. Despite what her characters are saying about the crimes, the camera never portrays their crimes as just. Every player is reacting to their circumstances with the tools they have at their disposal. It’s raw and beautiful.
Hustlers opens with Janet Jackson’s “Control” booming through the speakers. For the duration of the film, everyone seeks to find a bit of their own (even though the rules are stacked against them). Banhazl films the scenes in the club like a less clinical nature documentary. The pole work is shot straight on, unlike music videos which seek to highlight the shape of the dancers. He captures the athletics, the beauty of the costume, and the energy of the room with a deft eye. The costumes by Mitchell Travers should be commended, as well. The extravagant fur coats and glitzy costumes of the dancers exemplify the trashy sexy energy of the mid ’00s. Together, the entire crew has created a funny, at times shocking, and heartfelt piece of art. Exceptional performances, an unbelievable story, and a soundtrack for the ages make for a viewing experience worth revisiting again and again.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Jessica Pressler (magazine article), Lorene Scafaria (screenplay)
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo
Release Date: September 13, 2019
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.