The evils of Wall Street have been dragged onto the big screen for years and years. Whether it’s a story about the general greed seemingly inherent in that strip of New York business (“Wall Street”) or more focused stories about the market crash of 2008 (“The Big Short”), the concept of the everyday person hitting back at the Wall Street crooks is an American power fantasy second only to that of becoming a Superhero.
“Hustlers” is different though. There’s something about it; the sense of style, the tone, the cast, something inherent in this project specifically that sets it apart from the rest of this miniature genre.
Jennifer Lopez (“Jersey Girl,” “Gigli”) is an absolute knock-out, both on and off the stage as Ramona, the queen bee of the strip club Moves. She glides through each scene with an attitude somewhere between a hungry shark looking for prey and a mother bear protecting her cubs. She’s completely fierce, funny and dangerous. This is a role for the ages and one that can easily rest alongside other corrupt mentor figures in cinema.
Despite ample, and justified, praise being thrown at Lopez, she is still second to the incredible performance from Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Fresh Off the Boat”) as Destiny. She is the definition of a layered character, constantly being thrown into moral quandaries that are given the exact amount of weight they need. Wu straddles the line between someone you want to root for and scream at, and it culminates in an emotionally vulnerable and fierce protagonist.
While some of the supporting cast has been a bit exaggerated for marketing purposes; as great as they are, Cardi B and Lizzo are basically just cameos. Its the other half of the main quartet who deserve just as much praise at Lopez and Wu. Keke Palmer (“Scream Queens,” “Akeelah and the Bee:) lights up the screen as she radiates anarchistic energy as Mercedes, and Lili Reinhart (“The Kings of Summer,” “Riverdale”) is the supporting scene stealer as Annabelle, the sweet younger one who just wants a home of her own. She will melt your heart.
Actually, all of them will. The friendship that grows as the film progress feels incredibly authentic, and its an excellent example of why the film is a cut above the rest. Throughout the film there are smaller scenes that seem to serve no purpose to the overall plot, such as a Christmas day bash or training Destiny on the pole.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that these scenes exist seemingly specifically to show how the friendship between these characters naturally grows over time. Because of the ample focus spent on fleshing these friendships out, it means they’re more believable, more engaging and therefore easier to identify with and invest in.
It would be easy to worry about the film’s tone, as most of the trailers showed both the darker antics side-by-side with the glitter and glam. Thankfully, this is yet another example of how excellent the pacing is. As the film moves on, the tone shifts from hilarious party antics to terrifying life choices. The change is slow and purposeful, meaning it never feels out of place. It builds smartly on itself over its run time, eventually exploding towards the end in a way that is nothing short of fantastic.
Even within the frame narrative of “Hustlers,” there’s interesting choices being made. The decision to have the film be told as if Destiny is talking to the reporter who published the real-life article, played with a warm, purposefully simple demeanor by Julia Stiles (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “10 Things I Hate About You”), is nothing short of genius. It allows for a brilliant audience surrogate to step in, and also means that there is ample room for the frame to be turned on its head.
Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) injects the wit and sarcasm present in her previous features into the script here with fabulous results. It is consistently funny, with great visual gags and amusing dialogue throughout. One scene involving a popular singer is an absolute riot and will go unspoiled here. So much of it is so funny because the banter is so natural, again going back to the believability of these relationships. There’s even an art to the way its shot, with cinematographer Todd Banhazl (“Blow the Man Down,” “Dirty Computer”) letting the camera sit and rotate, fly, and hover exactly where it needs to.
There are tons of little details in “Hustlers.” Whether it’s the cuts back and forth to the frame narrative just for a well-executed joke, or the club’s DJ announcing things to the audience over the end credits, as if the club was closing, they all serve as perfect metaphors for the film itself; they didn’t have to exist, but they do, and they’re all the better for it thanks to the ridiculous amounts of effort therein.
“Hustlers” is a rollicking good time, with excellent tonal escalation, award worthy performances from Lopez and Wu, a delightful supporting cast and a narrative that thrives on the friendship of these women and capitalizing on flipping audience expectations for a loop. It’s a neon drenched delight that should not be missed. 5/5