REVIEW: Hustlers [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: September 13th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: STX Entertainment
    Director(s): Lorene Scafaria
    Writer(s): Lorene Scafaria / Jessica Pressler (New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores”)

We were like hurricanes.

What’s a better hustle than declining the price tag a Hollywood studio offered for your life rights to wait until the film is a hit and then sue the production for defamation? Samantha Barbash pretty much bet on the story—I’m hypothesizing that this was her intent based solely on her characterization in Jessica Pressler‘s New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” and Lorene Scafaria‘s cinematic adaptation Hustlers—and stands to make something regardless of how often these types of cases are dismissed. She’d usually have to prove the film intentionally sought to damage her reputation, but the fact that a contract was on the table at all could put the onus on the studio for thinking an early signature was beneficial for protection against future lawsuits.

Her argument stems from how the character based on her (Ramona) is portrayed by Jennifer Lopez. Barbash doesn’t deny the crimes for which she was charged, but does want it to be known she was never anything more than a hostess at these clubs. Is she telling the truth? That’s on her to prove. What we know from Pressler’s article is up in the air with the possibility that Roselyn Keo’s (on whom Constance Wu‘s Destiny is based) statement about Samantha being a dancer might be negated because the former is a known liar. The desire for Barbash to distance herself from the title isn’t surprising, however, considering those women who do admit to pole dancing are adamant themselves about not being strippers. That’s apparently worse than “criminal.”

And that’s exactly what they are: criminals. They used a mixture of MDMA and ketamine to make Wall Street high rollers pliable enough to max out their credit cards at a club where Roselyn and Samantha negotiated a majority percentage. But that’s just one part of the story. Regardless of whether Roselyn ultimately declared everything she told Pressler a lie (albeit with a presumed wink), the yarn spun began years before the central scheme. Scafaria took this “lie” and played with the details to create an entertainingly substantive script that changed things even more. The New York Magazine piece depicts Roselyn to be as cutthroat and remorseless as Samantha with their “friendship” nothing but a business partnership. The empathetic heart at the film’s core is therefore Scafaria’s doing alone.

She knew what she was doing because Hustlers only works if we care about the women falling down this rabbit hole of forgery, conspiracy, grand larceny, and assault. To read Pressler’s article is to meet two sociopaths who did something we intellectually accept despite harboring absolute contempt for them as people. Scafaria has to soften those edges and make Destiny into the innocent schoolgirl mold Roselyn overtly pretends to possess. She gives the character the remorse her real life counterpart lacks, provides a bond with Ramona that goes much deeper than pure fiscal symbiosis, and shows that the ensuing chaos might have started altruistically. Where the written account screams “revenge” on scumbag men, the film takes aim at a system these women conquered as a means for survival.

This makes a huge difference. Our entry point into Destiny’s life begs for our sympathy as we watch the strip club ostensibly steal most of her wages as though the business was her pimp. What little she does take home goes to her loving grandmother’s debts (Wai Ching Ho‘s Nana) and the cycle continues that night. Only when Destiny catches Ramona’s act does she see the sort of frenzy that could make her rich. These men are falling all over themselves watching their favorite dancer acrobatically will hundred dollar bills from their wallets. Ramona has the entire room under her command and Destiny knows success comes from picking her brain. Soon the two are thick as thieves: dancing, manipulating, shopping, and living without a care in the world.

That’s about when the recession hit to force those high rollers still around to stop spending tens of thousands of dollars in one evening. That’s when the women find themselves improvising with drug cocktails, alternate locales, and fresh recruits. It’s also when they start getting greedy. Destiny has the smarts to see what they must do to cover their tracks and maintain trust amongst the group (rounded out by Lili Reinhart‘s Annabelle and Keke Palmer‘s Mercedes before things spiral out of control). Ramona has the charisma to hook anyone who crosses her path and then tell them the next day that the only way to reclaim the money they lost was to admit to their wives what they’ve done. They both have expensive tastes that expedite their undoing.

The ride is as wild (Usher arrives in the early days to get everyone, including Cardi B and Lizzo, excited) as it is empowering (Ramona and Destiny build themselves an empire as single moms refusing to be beholden to men). And how things devolve is as authentic as it is heartbreaking once Destiny is forced to realize the woman who brought her life to the next level is now the one pushing her to the edge of losing everything. Wu is perfectly cast with an innocence that’s only augmented by her appetite for the con when Destiny talks Ramona into dealing exclusively with former customers so as not to ruin “regular” men. And Lopez is a force: physically during the first half and emotionally during the second.

It’s the latter that really resonates in a way that does make me wonder if she could be a dark horse in the Best Supporting Actress race. I thought talk about her performance was embellished wish fulfillment a la Blake Lively‘s chic sociopath in A Simpler Favor, but Lopez is the real deal when success gets to Ramona’s head. How she goes from caring, maternal shoulder to opportunistic pimp in her own right on a dime shows that her character is riding this roller coaster without a seatbelt while Destiny refuses to take hers off. But even at her most angry and disappointed, the love never goes away. Scafaria ensures that the connection these two have transcends the good times and bad even if they can’t.

The whole is also very funny with periphery players supplying memorable foils to the central duo whether through unbelievable shenanigans (“He said he could dive into the pool from the roof”) or unhinged liabilities (Madeline Brewer‘s coke fiend Dawn is a delight). Lopez adds humor with her unyielding exuberance while Wu injects sweetness via her reactionary straight man pose. It’s great when the party is champagne and deserving victims in suits and a punch to the gut when things screech to a halt for darker moments born from losing control. And no scene is more potent than Destiny walking her daughter to school in last night’s clothes while the other moms stare. She eventually must ask herself if the money is for little Lily’s future or her present.

[1] Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star in HUSTLERS. Copyright Motion Picture Artwork © 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS. Photo Credit Barbara Nitke. Copyright Motion Picture Artwork © 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Cardi B and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS. Copyright Motion Picture Artwork © 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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