“HUSTLERS” starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. This story is based on the 2015 ‘New York Magazine’ article from Jessica Pressler. Exploring the real-life events around a group of former strippers that create a small criminal ring on their Wall Street clients which over a handful of years netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars. With this one I have a feeling many will turn their heads to it and not give movie an honest shot. Probably under the assumption that it’s simply selling sex. Sure, the movie sells sex-appeal and is filled with plenty of materialistic high-fashion trendiness.
However, underneath all that I was pleased to find a fleshed-out story that shows just enough effort in exploring who these women were, why they did these things, and how their relationships played into their actions. All of which had me invested and curious as to how it would progress. There is a lot of edgy sexual-themed visuals. But we’re all adults, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, and won’t see again. You will find much more nudity in films not about stripping so for that aspect nothing felt glorified. The movie doesn’t rely on those elements and for that reason it turned out to be a much more compelling narrative than I was expecting.
Word out of TIFF on this one has been positive, and I can see why because I had a great time immersing myself in the world of this story. I enjoyed learning about this sub-culture, specifically during the era of the Wall Street boom and the subsequent repercussions once the economy tanked. I found myself easily connected to the character of Destiny played by Wu. I could understand why she chose to do what she did regardless of whether I agreed with hers, or the groups actions. It wasn’t simply about the money to her, there was a relationship bond her life was missing and this was an angle of the story that added heart to the plot. And that was primarily because of the story layering and the performances.
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I enjoyed how this story was told and how it was very matter-of-fact about the events that took place. It doesn’t glorify them or make martyrs out of these women. Sure, there were a couple scenes that explored the looking for work aspect of the story. And brief mentioning of life issues that brought these people down a path to eventually do these things. But it also didn’t hesitate to show their taste for lavish living with routine scenes capturing the excess spending, and characters showering each other with luxurious gifts. Items of which went far beyond the point of building a facade to use on these men, also known as a business expense. Yes, these women needed to make money to provide. But they also had a standard of living that would result in getting a little too greedy with their illegal business.
Scafaria structures the narrative nicely to convey each of the stages of the story as they escalate, and it was honestly pretty interesting to see unfold. The stripper life is laid out early on. The friendships between the characters, and the missing pieces in their lives that united them are expressed as well. This small scheme eventually turns to felony level activities which begins to attract unwanted attention. Things inevitably get tense and I thought seeing how they each reacted to these stresses, and how they influenced their relationships did have a surprising amount of dramatic intrigue. Because like I mentioned the performances were great overall and they effectively gave their roles loads of personality.
Jennifer Lopez has been getting some positive buzz for her performance and while I think she was perfectly suited to embody this role. I wouldn’t go as far as to say she did a deep dive on this character. For the needs of the role she was fantastic. From the dancing aspects, to the attitude, to the visual gravitas which allowed her to capture that leadership vibe with authenticity, I felt Lopez delivered. But she also very much felt like she was playing the role, as Jennifer Lopez. The tone of phrase, mannerisms, gestures, and expressions, all felt much more like ‘Jenny from the Block’ than it did Ramona, the former stripper turned criminal entrepreneur. I never felt like I wasn’t watching Lopez being Lopez, but it still wasn’t a major hindrance to the story.
This is something that I think led to Constance Wu coming in and stealing the spotlight in terms of that emotionally driven performance that can resonate with people. Her character is the most developed, but Wu took the material up a notch by shedding that “Fresh of the Boat” sitcom gloss to effectively disappear inside of this character. Wu brought a ton of heart and sincerity to the role and watching her try to find a balance in her life was gripping at times. She also captured a great chemistry with Lopez that was able to create that bond between them that the story relied on. Around them, the rest of the cast all worked for the needs of their roles. And with a witty sense-of-humor in Scafaria’s script complemented by a nice comical timing from the cast, I felt there was consistent humor to break the drama when needed.
On the downside the story didn’t feel like it had a consistent flow to it. I think the first and final acts were nice bookends to the story. But I felt the middle could’ve been cleaned up a bit. There were a couple repetitive scenes where it the plot was circling itself more than moving forward and it resulted in the movie lasting probably 15-minutes more than it needed. I also felt that other than Constance Wu’s character, the rest were sort of just character-types and not really explored including that of Lopez. However, with the scheme itself being much more the focus, and Wu’s character being explored more than the others, there was still enough substance to balance it all out.