Contemporary films owe a lot to Goodfellas, don’t they? Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, narrating his extralegal escapades with hindsight and a deadpan drawl, has become an iconic method of storytelling. This isn’t even to mention Scorsese’s wild camerawork (always a trademark) and, the real star, Thelma Schoonmaker’s whiplash of editing. As an energetic frame for the retelling of a true (or mostly true) story, Scorsese’s 1990 gangster landmark serves as inspiration for many.
Flash forward nearly 30 years, and Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s film based on a story printed in New York magazine, upholds the tradition of frenetic energy well enough, thanks largely to a strong cast and a keen eye for drama and empowerment.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Release Date: September 13, 2019
In 2007 Manhattan, Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a young woman dancing at strip clubs under the name Destiny and working hard to support herself and her sweet grandmother in her suburban Queens home. Working the club can be tiresome, often yielding ho-hum returns after a night of hard work, entertaining Wall Street slobs, and unfaithful husbands. Off the bat, Hustlers doesn’t condemn the audience of men ogling the beautiful dancers, but we’re given a clear portrait of businesses that deal in the objectification of women, plain and simple. The hook here is that the women know it, and they wring the shallow clientele for everything they’ve got.
Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) is the club’s top dancer, raking in hundreds of bills (some singles, the occasional Benjamin) after her masterful display. Quickly falling in under the senior dancer’s wing, Dorothy picks up tips and begins to support herself and her newborn daughter.
It’s in the first half of Hustlers that we’re on our rise, with the story framed from the “present” of 2014, where Dorothy sits for an interview with New York writer Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), who prods and hints at a turn for the worse, while we’re left to speculate just how far south things will turn. But during these good times, we round out our cast with the likes of Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), other dancers who fall into the Ramona Gang.
Scafaria borrows from the best with her scenes, giving us long, dramatic slow-motion shots where the girls will enter the club looking like a million bucks, accompanied by loud music, either within the film’s world or layered over the soundtrack. The scenes are effective, giving us time to peek around the frame, filled to the brim with the faces of dopey, eager men. Think of the final shot of Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, the faces of saps eager to make millions like the scummy Jordan Belfort. The energy tapped into for Hustlers is similar, though perhaps not as powerful as some of the best examples. It can feel a little obvious or heavy-handed at times, though never in an irritating or distracting way.
By the time things do start to turn sour for the girls, as they were inevitably bound to due in mingling with the sordid power-brokers of New York, there might be a sense of anticlimax to the film. I went in knowing nothing of the actual events, so my mind wandered anywhere, though assumed the affair would be largely…bloodless. The scamming and subsequent police involvement that cracks the cookie isn’t high drama, but that perhaps is a strength of the film, keeping things grounded and believable.
Without a doubt, this is largely thanks to the leading ladies. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, in particular, are terrific, playing grounded and real people working a job society might ostracize and wrinkle their nose at while keeping their heads high and taking zero gruff. There’s a particularly good moment, after one of her wilder, more chaotic nights, where Dorothy (still in her “work clothes” with a little blood on her shirt) lovingly drops her daughter off to school that morning, deflecting the sideways glances of parents and teachers nearby. Yeah, I’m a stripper. I love my kid. You got a problem?
Hustlers resolves itself as a fairly conventional film by its end, with morals instilled and a relatively neat bow tied around the whole affair. It doesn’t push boundaries like the films from which it takes its cues, but it more than succeeds in telling a worthwhile story in an effective manner. And damned if it isn’t entertaining, despite some filler material around its mid-section, though we get a good amount of Dorothy’s grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) as a result, and that’s fine by me.
If there’s a historic note to be made for Hustlers, it’s perhaps that it cements itself as being from a time and a place. Though it starts in 2007, the events track all through the 2008 financial crash, and its subsequent years. Showing that when giants fall, the real damage happens to the ones they fall on. The strippers and dancers of Hustlers might have suffered a chip from living in a man’s world, but you’d better believe they’re going to work with what they’ve got and carve out their slice of the pie.