Hustlers movie review: The anti-Wolf of Wall Street

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star in HUSTLERS
Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star in HUSTLERS /

Hustlers, starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, is this year’s Wolf of Wall Street – aimed at the corrupt suits of wall street.

There’s no denying that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, while still incredibly popular and widely regarded as one of Scorsese’s best films, has its fair share of detractors proclaiming the film to be an advocate for abhorrent behavior. The chief complaint is that Scorsese’s satirical comedy glamorizes the wild frat boy attitude of the Wall Street brokers who tricked people into buying worthless stocks for thousands of dollars, getting rich on the side and using that money to party and live lavish lifestyles.

Whether you believe the film to be just that or not, the reality of such events like the stock market crash in 2008 and the fallout for many working class people out of jobs has led to an even more negative view of Wall Street suits who continued to work in the meantime. The financial crisis of 2008 was a time of alienation, a rapid rise of unemployment, and a growing bitterness that would drive real-life ex-strippers to take matters into their own hands, which is the basis for the new crime dramedy, Hustlers.

Based on the New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Scores,” Hustlers details a very real and completely unique crime ring born out of a failed economy and years of systematic oppression that reached a boiling point. To put it simply, this isn’t an “all men are garbage” type of movie, but if you interpret it as such, there’s little doubt that the women behind the real-life scores would try to argue with you.

More from Movies

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, writer of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and director of Seeking a Friend for the End of the WorldHustlers receives much-needed treatment from a director who strays away from the typical sexploitation formula in a movie about strippers.

This doesn’t have the trashy sexual energy of something Showgirls, instead combining traits from the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street and the sincere viewpoint of Magic Mike to craft a stripper dramedy that slowly mutates into a crime drama about one of the most interesting and downright bonkers crime rings in the 21st century.

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS /

The real-life Hustlers

Hustlers is bound to take minor liberties here-and-there and one of the most prominent changes is the name of one of the leaders of the Hustlers family. Roselyn Keo (real life) is changed into Dorothy (Constance Wu), but the story remains consistently true to the article. Dorothy, or Destiny at her job as a stripper, is being interviewed by a journalist (Julia Stiles) investigating her involvement in a crime ring that saw her and several of her ex-stripper colleagues drug rich businessmen under the guise of a fun night out in order to steal thousands of dollars from them.

The organizer and leader of this crime ring, Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), hatches up this plan after her run as a popular and successful stripper at the same club where Dorothy worked comes to an end as the financial crisis lays all the women at the club off. With little money coming in from the low-paying day jobs they’re forced to take and a growing resentment to the rich businessmen still in power, the plan becomes too profitable to ignore, even as the crimes begin to pile up.

The harsh reality of the financial crisis is where Scafaria focuses the gradual buildup of the eventual scores in Hustlers, leading to a fun stripper comedy that simultaneously embraces and criticizes the glitz and gloss of stripper life. At one point, Lopez’s Ramona states that while the job can be demeaning, the potential profit makes it all worth it and Scafaria does not shy away from showing the realities of what goes on inside the strip clubs.

The women are very intentionally half-naked and seen dancing either on-stage or the lap of a rich client. Sometimes the women seem to enjoy themselves, other times show them reacting in disgust to the way they’re used in VIP rooms. Scafaria frames the world of stripping like any other job, normalizing the environment and taking her time in showing the audience meaningful aspects of life as a stripper and more than anything, this is Hustlers’ biggest strength.

Constance Wu stars in HUSTLERS
Constance Wu stars in HUSTLERS /

The women at play

Scafaria’s humane treatment of stripper life is helped out by a talented cast that brings her vision to life in a stylistic, yet down-to-Earth manner. An early scene in Hustlers showcases the backstage area of the strip club where Dorothy and Ramona work, lingering on the many women getting ready to dance and the general camaraderie between them. Cardi B and Lizzo, in short but memorable appearances, drive the conversation and transform the atmosphere into something playful and incredibly fun to watch, making use of their charisma and real-life personalities.

There’s a strange sense of world-building with the various characters of Hustlers, with each character driven by something different and having their own stake and place in the film’s universe. Keke Palmer’s Mercedes finds herself struggling to afford a lawyer to help her release her convict boyfriend, while Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle is the black sheep of the family with an overly sensitive attitude towards the eventual scores. These characters are not complex, but they play a bigger part in fleshing out the film’s universe, topped with entertaining performances from Palmer and Reinhart.

Of course, the main two players of Hustlers are Constance Wu as the film’s lead and Jennifer Lopez as the Queen Bee of this ragtag group of ex-strippers. Lopez, an experienced personality in showbiz in both real life and the movie, brings her superstar charisma to the role of Ramona to craft a kind, but disillusioned woman who is equal parts ruthless and caring. Lopez works best when appearing in roles that make good use of her cool and energetic personality and Hustlers may possibly rank as the best performance of her entire career.

Delivering another career best performance is Crazy Rich Asians‘ Constance Wu as Dorothy, the film’s primary focus and the heart of the film. The entire story, minus a few scenes towards the end, is told through Dorothy’s perspective and that lends to a unique retelling of the actual events that makes her out to be a sympathetic, yet slightly unreliable narrator.

Dorothy is the most fleshed out of the bunch and that gives way for Wu to electrify in what is possibly the performance of her career. We not only experience the factual events of the scores, but the post-crisis reality through Dorothy’s perspective and Wu gives the tough cookie a wonderful blend of humanity and unfiltered aggression. Being able to happily tell various stories of the brightest days of her stripper life and quickly switch back to her regretful telling of her eventual downfall, Constance Wu essentially makes Hustlers and while Lopez is rightfully receiving Oscar buzz, I’d throw Wu’s name into that Oscar campaign too.

Director Lorene Scafaria and Constance Wu behind the scenes on the set of HUSTLERS.
Director Lorene Scafaria and Constance Wu behind the scenes on the set of HUSTLERS. /

Sympathy or condemnation?

Hustlers plays nothing with a straight face, eager to express the perspective of the women involved in the crime heist and relaying most of the film’s moral compass on them. It’s a risky choice and something that is tested during the second half of the film, but Scafaria skillfully avoids the pitfalls with humanizing women who stole a fortune from various wealthy men. The men in this movie, with the exception of maybe two or three characters, are not exactly good people, but Scafaria is careful in these depictions, singling out the rich businessmen as the targets of the operation.

This leads to a complicated and interesting dynamic between the main women of the film, with each character developing their own feelings on their actions and how they choose to deal with it. Hustlers knows who it’s rooting for, but the increasingly dangerous crimes are given surprisingly objective treatment, bringing into mind whether if this is indeed the right way to ensure payback. A complex crime story at its heart, Scafaria does not hesitate with exploring the subject with technical mastery and delicate, but brutal honesty.

Unlike The Wolf of Wall StreetHustlers doesn’t seek to satirize the crime genre or tell a story from the perspective of the 1%. It also doesn’t glamorize the meticulous planning of the crime in the ways of something like the Ocean’s films. The film plays like Widows meets Magic Mike and it manages to capture elements of both films in terms of its tone. At times, it’s gut-busting with its comedy and that’s very present throughout the film, but the drama keeps Hustlers in the real world, where it is the most effective at telling this insane story.

In the end, it’s completely up to you whether you completely sympathize with the women of Hustlers or if your feelings are a bit more mixed. It’s hard to fall in love with what’s happening in this movie, but Scafaria’s whip-smart script, powerful direction, and the emotional core of Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez’s performances that leaves the film at a strange impasse that leaves you wanting to go down one road while thinking about the elements of the other road.

I know I just vomited some word soup there, but my point is that Hustlers will most likely leave you thinking about the film much more than what the promotion insists. The story is dark, brooding, and cold, but the entertainment factor helps us ease into it. In many ways, it’s what I imagine Widows wanted to be a year earlier. A great film in its own right, but Hustlers knows how to handle the audience in the palm of its hand and the ambition to telling this story is both admirable and incredibly satisfying at the end product.

Next. Netflix's Unbelievable: Irritating in all the right ways. dark

Final Verdict: 8/10 (might change to a 9 later)

Hustlers is out in theaters everywhere now.