Lorene Scafaria delivers one of the most surprising knockout films of the year and gives Jennifer Lopez her most compelling role to date
Few films at TIFF will surprise you more than HUSTLERS. For one, most viewers expected this to be an entertaining pop film with decent performances, a breezy space and a mix of comedy, dance and perhaps some suspense. As it turns out, HUSTLERS delivers an exciting, touching and eye-opening mix of drama and entertainment that truly defines it as a quality studio picture to look out for this fall.
Featuring a fierce and magnetic turn from Jennifer Lopez and a fantastic cast that includes Comstance Wu, Cardi B., Keke Palmer and Julia Stiles, Scafaria creates a film with gravitas that, while sharply focusing on entertainment, never feels slight. Directed with confidence and precision, this is a film that feels like a gangster movie but with a modern twist. Shot with moody cinematography and tightly edited, the film excels in creating a world of fascinating characters and delivering a strong commentary on the moral bankruptcy of a nation.
Based on a true story and an article, published by Jessica Pressler, HUSTLERS is about a group of exotic dancers who, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, decided to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients and find creative new ways to earn money. As the film delves into their illegal, but utterly engaging to watch techniques, Scarfia smartly focuses on the relationship between the two key women in the story. As Destiny, Constance Wu convinces in a role that demanded both innocence and vulnerability but the real star of the show is Jennifer Lopez. As Ramona, Lopez outdoes herself to create a character that you can’t help but relish watching. Menacing, dominant but with a heart of gold, Lopez manages to create her most compelling character to date – she takes what could have been a one-note character and turns her into something entirely her own: a mother, ring leader, friend, protector, a menacing figure – a woman on fire.
As Ramona leads Destiny into a life of hustling, a unique and unforgettable relationship emerges between the two. And Scafaria does the film a great service by selectin such relationship as the key framing device for the story – it keeps us engaged, intrigued and, at times, on the edge of our seats. It’s a narrative decision that entirely works with a film like HUSTLERS, which needed an intimate, humane hook to pull the story together rather than present a chronological account of what happened behind strip club bars during that dark chapter in US history. By giving its characters more shades of personality, the film retains its entertaining purpose but ends up being much more than a fun time at the movies. In commenting on moral bankruptcy and how life can push us to the limit, it achieves the fine balance between creating empathy for criminals in the eye of law yet never redeeming them fully. Just like Todd Phillips’ JOKER, the question is not about right or wrong; but rather how did we get there?
HUSTLERS answers this by showing and not telling. The circumstances of Ramona and Destiny couldn’t have been more different, and yet, they both meet at the very institution that gives them funds, wealth and resources as much as it gradually erodes their sense of guilt and compassion. And when things get ugly and money becomes short, both women find refuge, solace and power in an illegal operation built on the very moral bankruptcy that allowed them to exist in the first place. As the thieves steal from the robbers, no one is without fault.
“Motherhood is a mental illness,” comments Ramona in one of the film’s pivotal scenes as she describes how motherhood shaped the way she became and drove her to create her new identity on the dancing poles and frantic spotlights with thirsty Wall Street clients drooling at the sight of exotic dancers after yet another normal morning of stealing millions from innocent people. But it’s the illness of a dysfunctional legal and financial system that has pushed these women to go far beyond what they thought they were ever capable of.
Verdict: Expertly made, HUSTLERS fires on all cylinders and create an immensely entertaining and refreshing mix of grit, laughs and heart wrenching drama. A must-see.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. STX Entertainment will release Hustlers on September 13.