Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Premise: Based on true events. Around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, a group of high end strippers design a scheme to bilk their Wall Street clients out of thousands of dollars apiece.
What Works: Hustlers is a smart and fun picture that mixes multiple genres. This is partly a show business tale and the gentlemen’s club sequences are done very well. Filmmaker Lorene Scafaria doesn’t scold the characters for being sexual nor the audience for enjoying the show but at the same time the material is handled tastefully and without exploitation. The framing and the editing of the action are very precise. But Hustlers is about more than the world of strippers. It is also a heist movie. The subject matter suggests comparisons to Showgirls—and there are certainly parallels between the two films—but Hustlers has at least as much in common with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short as it does with Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 picture. This is a story about capitalism. The women of this gentlemen’s club service elite customers, many of whom work for Wall Street banks, and the movie is about how human beings relate to each other in an economy and how transactional relationships shape their values and self-image. Hustlers is framed around the 2008 financial crisis, starting shortly before the collapse and then dealing with the aftermath. These women have fun and make lots of money pre-2008 but after the collapse everything becomes desperate and exploitative. In a very direct way the film reveals how people are interconnected in an economy and how the corruption and malfeasance of bankers and executives at the very top impacts working people at the bottom. But for as much as the movie succeeds as a late-capitalist drama, Hustlers’ greatest impact comes from its characters. The movie has a terrific cast and the actors and the filmmakers imbue them with complexity and humanity. One of Hustlers’ central appeals is the friendship between the two leads played by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez. Wu’s character is the newbie who becomes the protégé of the seasoned performer played by Lopez. The two of them become friends and later co-conspirators in a scheme to defraud the rich. As their scam inevitably falls apart the friendship is strained and that gives Hustlers an added layer of drama. By the end, it isn’t so much the legal consequences but the loss of friendships that really holds the viewer’s attention.
What Doesn’t: The only flaw of Hustlers is its polish. The main characters are exotic dancers working in clubs that service an elite clientele so the production design, the cinematography, and even the bodies of the dancers have a very clean and glamorous look similar to that of a music video. However, that polish extends into every other facet of Hustlers. The domestic spaces look like images out of a high end furniture catalogue and the costumes always fit perfectly. The film misses opportunities to contrast the glamour of the club and the perfection of fantasy with harsh organic reality.
Bottom Line: Hustlers is a skillfully made picture that is smart and entertaining. The movie presents a fun and outrageous story with engaging characters while also dramatizing the excesses of capitalism and corporate power in a concise microcosm.
Episode: #768 (September 29, 2019)