I remember an episode of Drake & Josh where Josh is debating trying out for a television role. He says “I’m not much of an actor,” while the casting director responds with “well neither is Jennifer Lopez.” This is an unfair comment, but a common one. In our post-Gigli world, we’ve somehow gotten the impression that J-Lo isn’t really that talented. Well, she’s back to prove us all wrong in Hustlers. Her performance is absolutely fearless, and easily the highlight of the movie. She gets to go all in here, and give us one of the boldest, sexiest, and most mesmerizing performances of the past few years. She just turned 50, yet she shows more raw power and ambition than most twenty somethings. It’s really something to behold.
The rest of the film is also pretty good. Hustlers certainly takes a lot of inspiration from Scorsese pictures, namely The Wolf of Wall Street, but there’s enough of a feminine flavor to seem fresh. It’s based on the true stories of exotic dancers, and their misadventures with sex, drugs and wealth. Things start out glamorous enough, but after the infamous 2008 Great Recession, the scene becomes much more desperate. There used to be enough Wall Street creeps to seduce every night. But after that crash, the titular hustlers resort to drugging and ripping off whoever’s left. It’s a struggle we can relate with and get behind, as that Recession affected all of us. When these women get filthy rich off these human cockroaches, the schadenfreude is almost empowering. Not that it makes that right, of course.
The direction throughout is very impressive. Lorene Scafaria gives this project a lot of energy, and I really want to see what she does next. There’s a lot of clever visual tricks throughout the picture. Several montages are perfectly set to classical music. One segment has intentionally distorted audio to match an iPhone voice recording. My favorite scene in the whole film is a tracking shot of a tanning bed being installed. It’s set to Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$).” It was awesome. Scafaria also does a great job separating herself from other crime dramas. Because let’s be honest, 99.99% of the genre is a product of the male gaze. Even the great ones like Scorsese’s films, all relate to that all too familiar male power fantasy. But in this film… that’s not really the case. This is likely the least macho crime drama I’ve ever seen. When we get to see J-Lo pole dancing, Scafaria’s interest isn’t in how hot she is. It’s in how good she is at her job. Her portrayal in that scene isn’t one of lust, but rather one of admiration. The rest of the film feels like this too. Even though these women are all criminals and sex workers, there’s always a feeling of respect for them. Any man would have been too intimidated and aroused to do that.
I’ve talked enough about how great J-Lo is. How is everyone else? Well, Constance Wu is terrific. Her performance is very versatile and balanced. She does a remarkable job maintaining all of her character’s strengths and weaknesses. At times she’s powerful and hungry for more, and at other’s, she’s vulnerable and terrified. It’s a great counterpart to how godly J-Lo is almost throughout. The other actors are also effective… when they have something to do. This is where I have to get into the negatives of the film. Basically, this film is an ensemble with only two fully fleshed out characters. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart also have substantial roles, but I know almost nothing about them. And even though Lizzo and Cardi B are heavily featured in the marketing, their roles are essentially cameos. When we compare this to a film like Goodfellas, it’s easy to feel like the supporting cast got slighted. Everyone in Goodfellas is memorable, even the characters with only a few minutes on screen. Hustlers tries to have that level of scale in its cast, but doesn’t pull it off. Another major problem is the length. 110 minutes may seem perfectly reasonable, but I left the theater wanting more. This is an epic, sprawling story that often feels rushed. I’d honestly love to see a version of this movie that has a Wolf of Wall Street sized run time. It’s the same problem that bogged down Adam McKay’s Vice last year: sometimes long stories should make for long films.
Hustlers is a film with a lot of great pieces. Sadly it’s not quite a great movie, but it’s still a good one. This crime drama feels energized, unique, and made with a lot of passion from all parties involved. If this team can keep going in that direction, they very well could make a masterpiece next time. But even as is, it’s worth checking out.