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Who doesn’t love a good crime story? There have been so many great cinematic tales of thievery and bad behavior that the genre has become one of the most pervasive and popular around. Of course, the drawback is that anyone who wants to try and add their mark to this particular lexicon needs to bring something new to the table if they hope to stand out.
By the looks of it, you’d think that writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers might not be the film to do that — utilizing formula paired with what could feel like stock female empowerment material. That initial impression, however, is off-base. With powerhouse performances, and a unique spin on familiar storytelling, this film is a fun, albeit flawed, exercise in transforming the old into something new.
Hustlers takes its story from a true scandal, centering on Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Dorothy a.k.a. Destiny (Constance Wu), two strippers who are joined at the hip in a sort of mother/daughter relationship after meeting as colleagues at the same New York City club. While they are able to live the high life by feeding the desires of their wealthy clientele through their seduction techniques, the financial crash of 2008 results in the disappearance of all the Wall Street brokers that lavished them with tips galore. The result is serious economic hardship, leading them to create some bold ideas to recover their former lifestyles.
One big scheme, laced with drugs. alcohol, and exploitation, is all it takes to put Ramona, Dorothy, and their family of co-workers into the lap of luxury. But as with anything, the good times can only last so long.
You can see the DNA of films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street in every frame of Hustlers, as Lorene Scafaria takes this sprawling, non-linear narrative and shapes it with an inspired sense for music and narration reminiscent of how Martin Scorsese would attack such a tale. That’s not really a bad thing, though it does set up audiences to compare Scafaria’s film and those of the Scorsese's filmography.
What certainly helps Hustlers is that it feels like a very welcome updated take on that kind of storytelling. Yes, it has beats that feel derivative, but the characters that Lorene Scafaria explores with her interpretation of the familiar formula are vastly different. Ramona and Dorothy are people who, instead of acting purely from a place of greed, are clearly trying to fill emotional voids in their lives.
That difference is where Hustlers truly shines, as Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu wring that material for what it’s worth and make Ramona and Dorothy pop as charismatic protagonists. It’s a particularly spectacular return to form for Lopez, who not only brings her A-game to Ramona’s multi-faceted personality, but also is met with a script that really uses her to the fullest potential.
This leaves Wu to not only step up her game, but also to match those levels of brilliance that Lopez injects into Hustlers. The result is the most interesting non-literal dance captured on the screen, as the entire film sees both performers interacting with such ease and expertise that they captivate both their marks and movie-goers.
Truth be told, the entire roster of Hustlers’ acting lineup leave everything out on the field, and it’s a blessing. However, this also leads to the biggest problem the film has when it comes to working the Scorsese formula: it isn’t a long enough movie to truly capitalize on the rhythm with which this sort of story typically operates.
After watching Hustlers, I have to believe that there’s a cut longer than the one that’s going to theaters — which clocks in at an hour and 49 minutes. The build-up feels a bit too slow when compared to the resolution, and ultimately the film ends with a back half that rushes along just a little too quickly. Characters are introduced in a quick fashion, and work their way into the fabric of the film effectively enough. Yet besides Ramona and Dorothy, no one else really gets a chance to shine and be built as a fuller character just because of how the story moves. This is a film that boasts an ensemble featuring Lizzo, Cardi B, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, and you're left wanting a lot more of their presence.
There’s some missteps in Hustlers’ execution, but they aren’t killers. If anything, they just make you want more of the movie. Leaving the theater, I wanted more details as to how the business of strippers works, and a little more of the day in and day out of Ramona and Dorothy’s pre- and post-scam lives.
Lorene Scafaria takes a lot of bold moves updating a tried-and-true storytelling model, and is mostly successful, but there is also a desire to get more from the story — which feels slim in the grand scope.Still, the upside here is that whether you’re a fan of Scafaria’s impressive career thus far, or you're a newcomer, you’ll still be on board once you’ve dusted the glitter of Hustlers from your eyes.