Hustlers is a movie that basically plays by the standard crime movie genre conventional arc of rags to riches and trouble with the law. What makes this unique is the setting involving strippers running scams on clients with solid performances and directorial flair. This is a movie with a lot of pep and humour that unexpectedly can swerve into a dramatic punch.
Destiny (Constance Wu) is trying to get clients at the strip club but she isn’t doing very well until the older and wiser Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes the younger woman under her wing. Things seem to be going great until the financial crash of 2008 leaving Destiny without funds. Ramona recruits Destiny into her gang of strippers which involves taking men out for the night, doping their drinks, and stealing their money. As the stakes get higher Ramona wants more and recruits unstable hustlers like the fidgety drug addict Dawn (Madeline Brewer). But as they keep taking cash, eventually the long arm of the law may be drawing ever closer to ending the fun times.
The central storyline of naïve young rookie who learns the ropes from the experienced older expert is a standard but dependably sturdy plotline. What’s interesting is the slice of life behind the scenes peek at the strip club job, not doing something sensational (or, uh, downright terrible) like in Showgirls. It’s not glammed up, it’s a workaday job, and they even complain about how work affects their dating life. When Ramona teaches Destiny how to dance on the pole in the club it’s a very clinical, analytical situation. After the financial crisis, the club is basically empty and the only way to make money is to sell out their values. Destiny tells a harrowing story when she had to get some extra cash as Wu plays it very broken. Even the moments when Destiny or Ramona give up stripping and is working a regular job are very relatable. Since both the club and regular jobs seem to be dead ends, the ladies turning to elaborate con jobs seems almost logical.
As Ramona has always had a very pragmatic attitude about the club clients, “Think of them as rich friends” she tells Destiny, moving to con jobs is a pretty easy leap for her. Not so much for Destiny who ends up feeling kind of sorry for the guys. She had manipulated clients before, Destiny was working on getting her GED and she makes a pouty face at a client who then buys her a laptop, but the depth of their new scam shakes her. Since it involves drugging clients there are a lot of messy situations where the gals are afraid they’ve killed them. One of the funniest, craziest ones is a guy who completely passes out and they have to take him to the hospital, and the way that Destiny manages to pull off getting him help without being caught is darkly hilarious. Another funny scene is Destiny and Ramona trying to figure out the correct dosage of drugs so they test it out on themselves.
Lopez as the ringleader is solid even if her character doesn’t change all that much. Wu’s Destiny is the one who goes through a character arc as endures some heavy stuff. There are flash-forwards to her relating the story to a reporter played by Julia Styles which nicely gearshifts from fun crime caper flick crashing back to reality. Styles also gets in one of the movie’s best wordless gags when Destiny is relating how they drugged the drinks and the reporter suddenly eyes her tea wearyingly. Arriving later in the film is Brewer’s Dawn who is too tweaked out to keep things straight and Brewer is hilarious. The rest of the crew get in some good moments, Lil Reinhart’s Annabelle seems to react to stressful situations by projectile vomiting which is a grossly funny running gag.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria the movie looks slick with dynamic neon colours of the strip club setting the mood. There’re some good visual bits like when Usher (played by Usher, probably not much of a stretch) shows up at the club and the entire crew comes out to dance all at once. Scafaria also employs some interesting tricks, like when the girls are being monitored by the police with one character wearing a wire; while the scene takes place in the room the audio sounds muffled and distant like it is coming from a hidden mic. Also, when the gals engage in their scheme repeatedly there’s an awesome montage of the various clients and how it all goes according to plan. There is an odd moment where the stylistic tricks are a bit confusing like when a client’s last name is loudly bleeped in a conversation between Destiny and the reporter. It would have made sense if the client was revealed to have a famous last name but it’s never brought up again, so it’s just like the movie is suddenly deciding to edit itself mid scene.
Hustlers is an interesting ride of a film that swings between a carefree, funny crime romp and then it will drop a dramatic payoff. The basic mentor teaches newbie storyline has been done but the setting, performances and stylistic flourishes make it distinctly original.
Director: Lorene Scafaria