Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Hustlers (2019)

FilmDancers in the Dark.

Earlier this year, veteran director and giant of the industry, Martin Scorsese proclaimed that he simply “didn’t have time” anymore to write films with female leads, calling it a “waste of time” if the story doesn’t call for them. He, of course, has done just so in the past, and garnered just as much acclaim. But Scorsese may want to breathe a sigh of relief, as 2019’s Hustlers may indicate that he simply doesn’t need to. Not when there are competent younger film-makers with a voice that can recall old Marty at his prime, but still maintain their film’s own unique identity. Hustlers is this generation’s Goodfellas. And it has come at a time when we needed it most. 


Young new stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) teams up with her mentor, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and a group of fellow exotic dancers, in order to drug and rob wealthy Wall Street workers by bleeding their credit cards dry.

Put in the simplest way possible, there is hardly a second of Hustlers that isn’t fantastic. Every frame of the film is shot beautifully, every character instantly clicking when they swing onto the screen, some parts are slow and sensual, others tense gritty, and others borderline pieces of true art. As previously mentioned, it is clear that Scorsese’s fingerprints are all over it; long tracking shots, thick Noo Yawk accents, and a frankly killer soundtrack. But Scorsese’s influence isn’t so heavy handed as to render the film derivative, instead elevating it above most other female-centric examples by, in the truest sense, keeping it real. But not too much.

The film’s feminist nature comes not from tough sisters getting back at The Man, but from embracing their very femininity and bleeding every drop of power they can from it. In a profession otherwise looked down upon in the world of work as demeaning and fit only for ditsy chicks with daddy issues, the film shows that these are intelligent, competent, powerful women operating at the height of their game. Shaping out their own league and staying firmly at the top of it. Indeed, our leads consistently seem more ecstatic with their lives than most other characters outside of their world. The women of Hustlers are treated unfairly, but get their own back by playing to their strengths as, well, women.

Truthfully, the film should do wonders for the line of work central to Hustlers. Representation of sex work in film media often finds women relegated to disposable victims in horror films, brash and frankly offensive stereotypes, or expensive lacklustre Demi Moore vehicles. Director Lorene Scafaria rightly emphasises that, despite the nature of being viewed as objects in their profession, these are, in a shock twist, actual human beings. It’s rare, and greatly welcome, to see such a relatable and human take on characters such as these. And in doing so, the film’s stakes are kicked up a notch. We feel bad for these women who have been screwed by the system, all the while their customers (mainly wealthy Wall Street douchebags), reap the benefits. As Destiny states, maybe “hurt people hurt people.” It’s the entertaining, empowering heist movie that Ocean’s 8 ought to have been.

The cast are uniformly excellent. No matter how small, each player is treated to a character that feels fully-rounded out. As Destiny, Wu exudes a quiet confidence beneath the put-upon exterior forced upon her by the club she works for. Confidence which comes out to shine more and more as the film progresses, her development proving a joy to behold. Lili Reinhart offers endearing sweetness and vomiting as the nervous Annabelle, selling it hard that she’s the “nice one” of the group. Elsewhere, entertaining little bits are turned in by Madeline Brewer’s coked up newbie (arriving late in the film and nearly stealing the show) and a raunchy Cardi B (who, given the nature of the plot, seems like inspired casting).

But the centrepiece of Hustlers’ cast is, of course, Ms. Lopez. The much ballyhooed praise that has been lavished upon her performance is well deserved, for she imbues Ramona with such depth, wisdom, warmth and fire that you’ll likely be second guessing that this was the woman who made Gigli. Outside of her lucrative music career, Lopez’s cinematic output has been eclectic, to say the least. Building a sleeper empire for herself hasn’t come easy. For every Out Of Sight, there’s a Monster-In-Law. For every Selena, there’s an Anaconda. While the ratio of quality in her film choices nearly reaches Adam Sandler-levels of disappointment, it’s safe to say that, like Sandler, when she really wants to shine, she dazzles. Her performance as Ramona is intensely physical as well as emotional. From the moment she steps on screen, she virtually attacks the viewer with a sexuality designed to astound, all before lapping up the dollars thrown upon her and striding off the stage, leaving her mark on the hearts and minds of all who witnessed her. And then, mere moments later, she sits with Wu’s Destiny, wrapping her up in her large coat, a motherly warmth now in the air, all without sacrificing the power she just displayed. It’s a raw and rich performance from Lopez that never once lets up.

Hustlers proves at least two main things; that there is a market for female-centric cinema if it happens to be done right, and that Jennifer Lopez can indeed still act. It is a damned entertaining, occasionally beautiful, always engrossing film. An ode to those whom the big guy picks upon, as well as to Robin Hood in a g-string. Some may find it a bit too familiar to a certain wiseguys-flick, but with passion this prominent, fughetaboutit.


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