VOD film review: Hustlers
Script and direction8.5
Matthew Turner | On 25, Jan 2020
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Stormi Maya, Madeline Brewer, Julia Stiles
Watch Hustlers online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced, a collective howl of outrage went up when Jennifer Lopez was robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Frankly, it’s a decision that still rankles, because Lopez is simply sensational here, delivering a career-best performance that will leave your jaw on the floor.
Based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, the film centres on Destiny (Crazy Rich Asian’s Constance Wu), a young woman who begins working at New York strip club Moves and is immediately taken under the wing of den mother and star dancer Ramona (Lopez). However, when business dries up as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, Ramona recruits Destiny and fellow dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) for a get-rich quick scheme, whereby they drug their wealthy clients and get them to sign away large amounts of money on a booze-fuelled night out.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Lopez’s character makes such an impact, because Scafaria gives her one of the all-time great introductions in the form of a strip-tease / pole-dance routine that leaves the audience the same way it leaves Destiny in the film: wide-eyed, open-mouthed and overcome with a mixture of admiration and desire. Her follow-up scene (involving a rooftop and a fur coat) cements the central relationship between the two women that drives the film.
However, it’s not just Lopez’s physical prowess that impresses. Her character is confident, charismatic, determined, and fully aware of both her place in the world and exactly what she needs to do to survive. As a result, Lopez’s performance is nothing less than hypnotic. Wu is equally good, holding her own against Lopez with a sympathetic turn and generating strong chemistry with her to boot.
The script employs a structural device that acknowledges the original article, with Destiny telling her story to a journalist, played by Julia Stiles. As well as providing a useful outlet for any moral questions the audience may have, the device also allows Scafaria to have some fun with the idea of an unreliable narrator – witness Destiny’s reaction when she realises the journalist also spoke to Ramona, part jealousy, part sudden realisation that there’s someone who might contradict her version of events.
The script gets a lot of mileage out of its more metaphorical aspects, as underscored by Ramona’s line: “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” It also serves as a cathartic strike back for the routine exploitation and abuse of women.
Throughout, Scafaria directs with a sense of style and energy that occasionally recalls Scorsese, not least in a tracking shot that follows Destiny from dressing room to stage, explicitly echoing the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas. However, what really impresses is the way she controls the tone – despite the film featuring nudity and sexual situations, it never once feels exploitative, leering or gratuitous, instead celebrating the camaraderie of the women and revelling in the subversive way the audience ends up rooting for them to succeed, despite their crimes.
Hustlers is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.