TIFF ’19: ‘Hustlers’ Knows What the F*ck Is Up

As Janet Jackson would say, Hustlers is a story about control. Jackson’s voice literally carries that message over the film’s first scene—her 1986 empowerment hit “Control” bumps through the elite Manhattan strip club where Constance Wu’s Destiny is trying to learn the ropes and take back her life. This pairing of song to scene is brass and unsubtle, but why shouldn’t it be? Hustlers knows it’s brass and unsubtle, and it knows exactly how to blend these elements, otherwise limiting in the wrong hands, into a dangerous concoction too delicious to resist. 

This cocktail of fun and energy and star power might trick you into thinking Lorene Scafaria’s latest film isn’t worth taking seriously, but you’d be dead wrong. Hustlers is big and uproarious, yes, but it’s also a for-fucking-real crime story with enough style, intrigue, and pinpoint emotional accuracy to compete with the films of Soderbergh and his ilk that have thus defined the ensemble heist genre. Thanks to the unique vision of women in control on both sides of the camera, Hustlers is a triumph—and one of the best films of the year.

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 4.43.04 PM
Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer and Constance Wu in ‘Hustlers’ © STXfilms

Based on New York Magazine’s 2015 article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers builds itself around Dorothy (Constance Wu), otherwise known as Destiny, a now-comfortable young mother reflecting on her years spent stripping and embezzling thousands from Wall Street guys around the city. Through her background interview with Destiny, Pressler stand-in Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) provides the film’s present-day context and, perhaps more importantly, acts as the white and wealthy eyes through which Destiny and her colleagues have historically been judged. “What would you do for a thousand bucks?” Destiny asks her. “The answer has a lot to do with where you are now, and where you were before.”

And where was Destiny before? Parentless, caring for her elderly immigrant grandmother, and desperate to make more money—for her family, but also for herself. Already dancing, she lands a gig at one of the more prestigious strip clubs in the city and meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s gorgeous star with an entrepreneurial spirit and protective affection for the other dancers, including the nervous runaway Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), fashion-obsessed Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and loud-mouthed Diamond (Cardi B). Wise, witty and dripping in furs, Ramona is quick to provide Destiny the guidance she desperately needs to rake in more cash. 

And rake in cash they certainly do—this is pre-crash 2007, and the dancers have no trouble getting boorish bankers to deposit their riches right into their G-strings and bank accounts. The girls dance to Britney, Rihanna, and Usher, they buy themselves bags, they upgrade their lives. Destiny provides for her grandmother and moves into her own place, and she finds the first real friends of her life. But when the recession hits, the millionaires who broke the system pull away from the club, and the dancers golden hour fades out into nothing.

This is Destiny’s villain origin story—and while you might know what comes next, every beat is as thrilling as that of the very first heist movie you ever saw. After years spent apart, living quieter and much more challenging lives, Ramona and Destiny reunite to start drugging and robbing the still-wealthy former clients that are now hesitant to step into their club, but no less hesitant to drink with strangers and cheat on their wives.

While Hustlers plays most of the dancers adventures in criminality for laughs, there’s an ever-growing sense of fear and sadness about their situation, and the question of justice looms large. What does it mean to be guilty when you’ll never be punished? What do women of color owe a system that’s betrayed them? “This whole country is a strip club,” Ramona says. “There’s the ones throwing the money, and the ones doing the dance.”

These heist scenes, like the dance sequences that precede them, are directed with a steady gaze that gives the actresses space to flex their acting muscles and wide variety of talents. Lili Reinhart is surprisingly charming as Annabelle, despite her characteristic gag of puking whenever she’s caught in a lie, and Keke Palmer lands some much-deserved punch lines as the self-obsessed Mercedes. But there’s no mistaking that Jennifer Lopez, with a rare combination of rom-com charm and the kind of world-weariness you only get by being a performer at her level for over three decades, is the real star of the show. 

Hustlers treats Lopez like the icon she is—we get a stripping sequence set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and a shot of her smoking in a bikini and a fur coat all within the film’s first 20 minutes—but she’s careful not to lean into parody. Rather, she chooses to push for something more with Ramona, treating her like a real person and not just an alternate-universe Jenny from the block. Destiny’s complex, codependent relationship with Ramona is the love story at the heart of the film, and the emotion of watching it grow and crumble is inextricable from the suspense of their crimes. 

While I’m not in the business of predicting box offices, Hustlers seems poised to bring home the bank—but there’s no scam in the sale. Lorene Scafaria and company have busted open the crime comedy genre and made a smart, funny, crowd-pleasing movie with a diverse all-women cast that simply works. If that’s not the perfect movie for the year of the scammer, I don’t know what is.

You may check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here.

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