Hustlers movie review: Jennifer Lopez's wonderful performance elevates a narrative that only skims the surface
We are left with little to no understanding of any of the women in the film, except for the formulaic and unemotional narrative of Dorothy.
Fuelled by an intriguing true life story, a refreshingly feminist execution, and a pair of wonderful performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers marks a solid calling card for writer-director Lorene Scafaria. For most audiences, this is worth a watch in the theatre, but it is important to keep your expectations low because it does not hit all the notes and heights it attempts to scale.
Like a modern-day Goodfellas, the film introduces us with a large tracking shot of Dorothy (Wu) in the underbelly of the big city, and much like that Martin Scorsese movie, the story takes us through Dorothy’s introduction to an enigmatic senior personality, who shows her the ropes, and then entangles her in a criminal enterprise. The enigma in this case is of course Lopez, who plays Ramona, a veteran stripper who dabbles in a little crime to hustle wealthy, sleazy Wall Street men.
The interesting aspect of Hustlers is it is anchored in the desperation of the 2008 financial crisis, which makes the characters immediately relatable and acceptable, despite the clearly illegal acts they commit. Scafaria shows these characters through a non-judgmental lens, while also making sure their criminal activities are not overtly sensationalised, despite there being ample potential to do so. It also does not hold back on the crowd-pleasing moments, which are injected with all the biggest pop hits from the late aughts, juxtaposed to our anti-heroes cascading in celebratory slow motion. Both Wu and Lopez rise far above the actual material in the script, and watching rich male scum bags getting their just desserts from a gang of fiery women fighting recession is never not fun.
There is, however, the issue of portraying these characters in a one-dimensional way, and utilising their gender as an empowerment tool despite their personalities not having anything beyond surface level agency. They are all thinly written, and the consequences they face are painfully predictable, never going beyond the rise and fall cliché of the narrative of the genre. So even when the film dazzles you with spurts of attention-grabbing moments, it struggles to breaks through the mediocrity of the screenplay. The film wants you to root for these characters, but Ramona is nothing more than a showcase for Lopez’s pole dancing skills, rather than a vehicle of rich, introspective characterisation in an increasingly complex and male-driven world.
The repetitive nature of showcasing the gang’s con also gets tiresome after a point, as the film constantly shifts, in unappealing edit patterns, from the strip club to Ramona’s plush apartment. It all ends on an unsatisfying, anti-climactic note. It does feel as if the film was too scared to take a truly deep dive into the real life case. We are left with little to no understanding of any of the women in the film, except for the formulaic and unemotional narrative of Dorothy being a single mother and an immigrant. While still an overall enjoyable movie, it is important to regard the biggest takeaway – that mere representation does not automatically mean great cinema.
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