HUSTLERS review by Mark Walters – JLo and pals strip for men, then strip them of their money

HUSTLERS review by Mark Walters – JLo and pals strip for men, then strip them of their money

HUSTLERS tells the story of a series of women who worked as strippers in 2007, fell on hard times when the stock market crashed in 2008, and developed a scheme to bait wealthy men and bleed their bank accounts dry for the next few years. It’s based partly on real life women who worked at Scores strip club in New York during that era, profiled in the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler.

In the film, we follow Destiny (Constance Wu) as she struggles to make money stripping so she can support her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), who raised her when her parents left her behind as a child. One night while working at the club, she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a seasoned dancer who really knows how to work the customers to make the largest amount of money possible. Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, teaches her expert dance moves and how to manipulate the clientele in a flawless fashion. And, for a brief moment, things go pretty well and the money flows in nicely. Then the stock market crashes, and soon the club becomes a ghost town.

All of the girls must now take odd jobs to get by, as the club is taken over by Russian models who aren’t afraid to do a little extra for minimal money. Destiny has the added challenge of trying to raise a daughter after her deadbeat boyfriend leaves, and things start looking pretty bad. As Ramona re-enters her life, they come up with a scheme where they can use their feminine wiles to lure wealthy stockbrokers into hanging out with them, get them drunk, then use their credit cards to rack up big charges. They even get the bars and clubs in on it to make it easier. As the grift gets more challenging, they even resort to drugging the men so they can’t fight the process. Ramona justifies their actions by saying these guys should all be in jail anyway, as they got away with stealing from others in the crash because of their professions. As copycat girls start popping up, they realize they need to go private and skip the bars and clubs entirely, and that’s when the real money starts coming in.

The film features moments throughout which are set in 2015 with Destiny talking to a reporter named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), recounting how everything played out, and ultimately how it ended. It’s a simple way for the audience to keep up with things without having a more basic narration over the film, and for the most part it works… but it’s also ominously building to what we imagine won’t be a happy ending. The first half of HUSTLERS feels like a sometimes gritty and rather honest look at the life of a stripper in New York and what that life entails. We get a sense of the different types of girls, their dysfunctional family-like life in the club when backstage, and the good and bad that comes with it all. It’s a sincere if sometimes disturbing look at that world, and for that first hour or so it seems like this film may be something really exceptional. But the second half seems to devolve into more of a by-the-numbers crime caper film where we see the creation of the grift, the execution of it, seeing it get out of control, and the inevitable way it all comes to an end. There’s also a weird imbalance of tone in the second half, where some scenes are cute or laugh-out-loud funny, and other scenes are dark and disturbing… and again, the first half feels much more balanced.

The cast is a mixed bag of greatness and oddness, with Jennifer Lopez being the standout of the ensemble, looking confident and calculating as the crafty Ramona. This is a woman who has seen a lot, and figured out how to handle herself in just about any situation, but isn’t above working a minimum wage job at The Gap when her regular gig falls apart. Lopez is likable and engaging in the role, a definite departure from her normally grounded and humble characters, but she sells it well and looks amazing while doing it. Constance Wu seems a little miscast as Destiny, meant to be our eyes in this journey, never quite seeming like she fits in this crazy world. Wu is a very likable and competent actress who is always fun to watch, but I just found her out of place here a bit… then again, maybe that was the point, as Destiny is meant to be the “new girl” in this world of very seasoned women. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart play the other two leads in the main crew, and both get funny and memorable moments, though their characters feel slightly underdeveloped. Those going to HUSTLERS hoping to enjoy seeing Cardi B on the big screen might be a bit disappointed, as her screen time is pretty limited and really only sprinkled throughout the first half of the film… but when she’s on screen, she’s terrific, and actually gets some of the best moments in the film. There’s a few other famous musical performers peppered in the production, but all have very limited scenes.

Overall, HUSTLERS is fairly entertaining and well-performed, even if it feels pretty familiar and at times predictable. Directed by Lorene Scafaria (THE MEDDLER and THE NEW GIRL), the pacing is fairly brisk and the story moves along well, and I respected the fact that they didn’t shy away from some of the less attractive sides of the strip club lifestyle, although they probably could have shown even darker moments to really establish just how rough that profession can be at times. This is also a film that asks the audience if what these ladies are doing is at its core wrong, or in a Robin Hood sort of way loosely justified. Some might think this is a female empowerment film, but truth be told this is a story of ladies who lack any specific direction in life, and are just trying to get by in the only way they can come up with. It never feels like any character is glorified or one to be respected, but somehow we still like these women enough to become invested in their misadventures. There’s nothing shockingly new here, but what is here is fairly entertaining. Imagine a female MAGIC MIKE mixed with MOLLY’S GAME, and a dash of BOOGIE NIGHTS thrown in… and yet somehow it all feels like it’s still holding back a bit.

HUSTLERS opens September 13, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.