Sunday 13 October 2019

Film Review: Hustlers

You've got to respect the hustle as Jennifer Lopez springs into the Oscar race in Lorene Scafaria's gleefully entertaining Hustlers

Destiny (Constance Wu) is new to the Big Apple and out of her depth at Movers, a seedy strip club frequented by slimy Wall Street investors looking to splash some of the cash made from cheating the system. When mother hen Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes Destiny under her wing, the two soon hatch a scheme that involves preying on their shady clientele in order to make some extra dough.

Where Hustlers differentiates itself from other scandalous stories about strippers is its rejection of the male gaze at every turn. Ramona and Destiny aren't the disposable vices that the Wall Street suits see them as; they're scantily-clad predators who cleverly command the attention of their slobbering, hapless audience.

The film, particularly during its first act, is a celebration of femininity – with Ramona acting as head honcho, this group of girls from all walks of life find a home with one another. In searching for wealth, the girls find family – a point which Scafaria returns to repeatedly, as the film shifts from a scathing Adam McKay-esque critique of the 2008 financial crisis to a more singular, character-driven narrative about female empowerment.

Of course, Scafaria's adoration (or admiration) of the women starts to wane as the film wears on – their ambitious attempts to swindle bankers out of their ill-gotten gains may start small, but are soon putting lives at risk – the work gets sloppy,  the risks taken inch higher and they lose sight of why they started in the first place. Scafaria toes the line between critiquing the wily women and endorsing their actions, as the film pivots from one theme (exerting power over men) to another (the strength of female friendship).

All this is framed as a retrospective; title cards see the years slip by, as the misadventures of Ramona and her posse are relayed into a dictaphone owned by Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a New York magazine reporter. This storytelling device makes for an interesting back and forth, but is also a little undercooked. Stiles' character is little more than a surrogate for the audience, sitting passively and offering little input of her own.

The real heart and soul of this film belongs to Lopez, Wu and the ensemble cast of women who flit in and out of the story. Lizzo and Cardi B are two high profile cameos, while Riverdale's Lil Reinhart and Keke Palmer get ample time to shine as Annabelle and Mercedes, two of Ramona's proteges. Wu continues to impress in her first major starring role since Crazy Rich Asians, but it's Lopez who commands our attention in Hustlers.

Hustlers is a film that occasionally brushes up against having something serious to say, but ultimately it's a booze-soaked, drug-addled romp that has shades of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Some of the third act emotional heft is shaky, but after the third slick montage set to the likes of Britney and Lorde, you'll probably be having too much fun to care.

The Verdict: 8/10

A Robin Hood tale with neon-drenched strip clubs in place of Sherwood Forest, Hustlers is exactly the kind of fun mid-budget adult film audiences should run out and support. Pay the box office in singles, if you can.

Hustlers is in cinemas across Australia now.

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