By the end of Lorene Scafaria's latest crime film, I was quite perplexed. I reread all of my notes. There were all of the markings of a strong film. Why didn't I feel that it was anything more than quite good? Well, before I go down that road, maybe we should discuss the film a little bit. Firstly, and I cannot stress this enough, Hustlers involves the objectification of women through a female gaze. You can absolutely see the differences. A somber scene where we see Dorothy (Constance Wu) sans makeup is not shot with malice or male-planted discomfort, but with vulnerability that feels existent, but not put on blast. Even the actual stripper sequences are simply shot. Outside of a solo number by Jennifer Lopez's Ramona character, none of this feels hyper sexual (but it had to be there because of story!!!). It all feels like business. For these kinds of directions, I cannot thank Scarifia and company enough.
Let's also get the elephant in the room out of the way. Hustlers is not the glorification of men being drugged and robbed. In case you haven't noticed, the film is not rewarding its leads for this kind of behaviour. The majority of the first hour is a slowly burning candle that sheds light on why Dorothy and company went down this dark road. The picture is painted. She is struggling to get by and take care of her loved ones (generations past and future). She feels stuck, and has to get by in the only profitable way she feels possible: through the garden of the male-focused fetishization. The men get their kicks, but this is a means of survival for the women. The film goes into the more darker territory of how strippers are forced into being paid for sex, either through abuse or struggle. No. The crimes the lead crew committed aren't honourable, but you are told why they felt they had to do this.
A privileged reporter, whose article is the basis of this film, claims she doesn't feel sorry for the men that cheated on their wives, spent thousands of dollars, and took advantage of women past the usual stripping boundaries. That isn't the same as saying men suck and all men should be drugged and robbed. If you can't see past this, and you're going to arbitrarily give the film 1 out of 10 on IMDb because one film out of countless isn't made for men, and to make sure you know the difference between exploit and a presentation of events, then I have no clue what to tell you. Stop reading, because your mind has already been set.
Having said all of that, that's kind of why I am somewhat split about Hustlers. Most of the film feels just like the plot is simply laid out in front of you for you to think about. A story is being told, but a tale never really takes a hold of you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the subject matter (and how even more misconstrued the film can be, somehow). It also lets the leads do their work. It's true, folks. Jennifer Lopez finally feels like she delivers a noteworthy performance, rather than being the Jenny from the block we're used to. The best part is how humanistic she feels. Even during the brief moments of rage, Lopez never feels like she is too much. It's the kind of textured performance you wish she would give more often, now that we know it's possible.
Not enough has been said about Constance Wu, who has me super excited for what other dramatic roles she will partake in now. As the leading story teller of the film, Wu's explosive reactions to the worlds around her pick up the narrative where it may drag behind a bit. The best news is I don't even think this is the furthest we can go with her capabilities. I feel there's more to discover. For now, this is the best work Wu has delivered so far.
Some of the other characters feel like literary resorts. Lili Reinhart is the nervous girl who pukes enough times to become stale. Keke Palmer is almost rendered simply "one of the others". Madeline Brewer is virtually the drug addict that is a liability. Cardi B and Lizzo (who are barely in the film, might I add) are glimpses of comedic relief that are actually infectious; alas, they are all but cameo appearances. Really, this is Wu and Lopez's show to boot. Wu shows us she has more in her. Lopez proved all of us naysayers wrong.
With music that's a bit too on-the-nose, and pacing that sets up the dominoes but waits a really long time to knock them all over, Hustlers is still a strong effort with a fairly intriguing story. Expect too much, and Hustlers may feel a bit thin (as it did for me). Go in without expectations, and you may be slapped with the unexpected. Set yourself up to be attacked for bigoted reasons? Just read the summary and conjure up your own piece. You already did, in a way.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.