TIFF REVIEW – ‘Hustlers’ is worthy of all your dollar bills and then some

If there was one inclusion on the Toronto Film Festival schedule this year that stood out as an intriguing addition, it was undoubtedly Hustlers; a film which, on its surface, appears like something more at home in a summer blockbuster season than amongst a litany of awards season hopefuls. With its ensemble female cast stacked with big names of both the film and music world and a narrative centred on the exploits of a group of strippers, you may be expecting a film devoid of any substance. You’d be wrong.

Much like the surprisingly sharp Magic Mike, Hustlers proves to be far more than just a glamorised look at the world of stripping. Sure, there’s plenty of ridiculous fun and outlandish entertainment to be had here, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria delves deeper than the glitzy action within the strip club.

A surprisingly nuanced introspection on the crippling challenges facing women in the workplace, Hustlers offers a sardonic dose of biting commentary on privilege and the crippling economic imbalance in America that’s a game those outside the top 1% can never hope to win. That is, of course, unless you’re prepared to play that game your own way. And breaking a few rules always makes for electrifyingly entertaining cinema, right?

Based on an outrageous true story covered in Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article entitled “The Hustlers at Scores,” the film is told through the framing device of an interview with one of the hustlers, Dorothy aka Destiny (Constance Wu) for the article with Pressler, strangely renamed Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). The film begins in 2007 where we find Destiny working her first night at a popular New York strip club.

Instantly discovering the world of stripping is far from the exciting fun she had hoped for, Destiny is subjected to a neverending parade of repugnant men and a takehome paycheck that hardly seems worth the struggle. Despite her best efforts to elicit attention, Destiny can’t compete with the experienced girls of the club, particularly the dazzling Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, never better), who commands the pole like few others with a routine that’s equal parts sexually suggestive and athletically impressive.

Feeling empathy for the struggling stripper, the uber-confident Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, showing her a few advanced pole techniques (with names like “The Martini” and “The Peter Pan”) and working the room together as an enticing double act to elicit more money from the slobbering masses of men with their wads of cash.

In the midst of the money finally rolling in for Destiny, the financial crash of 2008 hits, causing business at the club to plummet, as the high-rolling men who once frequented the establishment vanish. It’s here the ever-resourceful Ramona develops a “fishing” scheme with the assistance of Destiny and fellow strippers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer).

With their sights sets on a series of rich male sitting ducks at local bars, the foursome flirts with each victim before spiking their drinks with a potent cocktail of ketamine and MDMA. It’s just enough to get them happy and relaxed so the girls can lead them back to the club where the foolhardy men hand over their credits cards, which the girls use to rack up bills in the thousands. But, as the heist becomes larger and more complicated, the scheme soon begins to unravel.

Blurring the lines between good and evil, Hustlers leaves it to the audience to identify whether these hapless, greedy victims have it coming (especially after the global financial mess many of them played a role in) or if the gang of strippers were nothing more than ruthless opportunists out for all they can steal. By highlighting the unpunished crimes of the major players in the GFC, the money these women are stealing was essentially stolen to begin with, almost painting Ramona as a modern-day Robin Hood. But it’s hard to ignore the fact most of the victims weren’t personally responsible for the financial crash, making them far more innocent than we’re being asked to ignore.

Everybody is hustling somebody. Or, as Ramona eloquently puts it, the whole world is just one big strip club. Thereby, is it really a crime to hustle the hustlers? The women take control of a system designed to keep them subdued, offering a strong message of female empowerment, albeit a criminally minded one. By authentically portraying these characters as regular women who merely want to provide for their children and pay their bills, it’s hard not to sympathise with their plight and it’s rather satisfying to see them succeed, no matter how shady their behaviour ultimately becomes.

But when the women start to splash their cash on chinchilla fur coats, extravagant jewellery, and expensive cars, it becomes obvious they want more than just enough to keep a roof over their heads. It’s in these moments of excess our sympathy for these characters is tested, painting them in a rather unlikable light, typified by a Christmas gift exchanging sequence that’s genuinely offputting. Yet, it’s here Hustlers provides plenty of giddy fun that showcases the ensemble cast’s spectacular chemistry. There’s a gorgeous camaraderie displayed here that’s a joy to watch. Early scenes feature cameos from urban music giants Cardi B and Lizzo, who are essentially playing exaggerated versions of themselves but expertly so.

The crux of the narrative of Hustlers is absolutely led by Wu, who is wonderful as an emotionally vulnerable character with a hidden fiery streak. Beginning the film as a shy wallflower, Destiny blossoms into a fierce aggressor, expertly able to manipulate the men who cross her path. It’s a complex role which Wu handles tremendously well. However, the film ultimately belongs to Lopez, who commands every single scene she’s a part of. In a performance that’s easily the best thing she’s offered in years, Lopez grabs your attention and never once lets it go.

After a stunning entrance (to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” which will likely see a chart resurgence after this film), you won’t be able to take your eyes off Ramona. Exuding brash confidence, gutsy determination, and genuine warmth, she controls every step of this game, while maintaining an endearing and earnest connection with her fellow hustlers, allowing Lopez to completely steal this film. It’s a deft display of raw movie star magnetism and one that many are calling out for awards attention, which frankly would be justified. Lopez has truly never been better and maybe it’s finally time to acknowledge her unappreciated talent.

Refusing to demonise the life of a stripper, Scafaria offers a sympathetic portrait that could only be crafted by a female filmmaker. Hustlers easily could have a glorified and mildly pornographic disaster without the female gaze Scafaria brings. She understands the importance of highlighting the backstory of these characters to offer an insight into how and why they’ve found themselves in sex work. There’s little glamour here. Stripping and consequently hustling is a means to an end. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Whether that makes the hustlers’ crimes excusable will be up to you to determine. It’s undeniably fun to watch these women enact some delicious revenge on a world that’s chewed them up and spat them out. With intelligence and depth you likely won’t be expecting, Hustlers serves up more than just a good time. But it sure manages to also deliver that in spades. This one is worthy of all your dollar bills and then some.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B, Lizzo
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Producers: Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Elbaum, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Benny Medina, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Lorene Scafaria
Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria
Cinematography: Todd Banhazl
Production Design: Jane Musky
Editing: Kayla Emter
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 10th October 2019 (Australia)

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