Dorothy (Constance Wu) just wants the bare essentials. She just wants to take care of her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) and not live out on the street. To get the money for these necessities, she works as a dancer at a strip club alongside Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the most talented dancer in the place. The two of them hit it off as fast friends and begin making a lot of money, particularly from clients who are also wealthy Wall Street brokers. For a little while there, everything is perfect. But once the 2008 financial crisis hits, the club is hit with money woes while Dorothy also leaves the profession to take care of her newborn kid. After a few years, Dorothy’s financial troubles return worse than ever. Where is she gonna get the cash she needs? Well, an impromptu reunion with Ramona delivers a possible solution as Ramona reveals she’s got a new scam brewing involving drugging Wall Street tycoons and then taking thousands from their bank accounts.
Plenty of comparisons have already been drawn between Hustlers and the works of Martin Scorsese and it’s clear why, Hustlers certainly takes more than a few cues from that master filmmakers works. Scenes where either Dorothy or Ramona explain through voice-over how certain scams or features of their particular strip club while the camera moves propulsively around the strip club certainly echo similar scenes in Goodfellas. But Hustlers is so good that it manages to not just evoke Scorsese, it also creates it’s own distinct visual aesthetic so entertaining that it will likely prove influential to future filmmakers. After all, who wouldn’t want to emulate the compulsively engrossing filmmaking and writing delivered by writer/director Lorene Scafaria here?
Scafaria’s directing is truly in rare form here, particularly with her consistently imaginative ideas for how to make scenes as visually interesting as possible. The camera is always moving, always alive and always doing something neat in Hustlers. Just look at a moment where we follow the characters in a transition from a booth in a restaurant to the front entrance of the strip club, all in the span of a single shot. The camera just moves to the left and we’re somewhere new! That’s just one of the many ways the energetic camerawork in Hustlers makes this such a fun watch, you could go through each scene and just pinpoint the importance to the position of the camera or why they chose a shot. That might sound like obvious pieces of praise, but it’s shocking how many movies opt to just go for stagnant visual styles.
Not Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banzhal constantly go for far more thoughtful and ingenuitive visual choices in this production. Similarly imaginative is the editing in Hustlers, which is good since so much of the film is specifically reliant on editor Kayla Emter’s work. There’s plenty of montage sequences in here used to, among other purposes, explain the world of strip clubs or corrupt Wall Street types and they all have this engaging rhythm that owes a lot to Emter’s editing. Emter also shines in knowing how to perfectly time a shot meant to be a punchline to dark joke perfectly. Shots that prove to be particularly hysterical due to her sense of timing include one showing Dorothy and Ramona after they start making drugs together and another separate shot cutting to a reporter (Julia Stiles) accepting a beverage from Dorothy after hearing a particularly gruesome part of Dorothy’s story.
The editing and direction aid the criminal aspects of Hustlers storyline but where the movie really grabs your attention is through its characters. Scafaria’s script isn’t afraid to deliver plenty of genuine heart in addition to making a frequently grim crime yarn. The relationships developed between Ramona, Dorothy and their work colleagues at the outset of the film prove to be immensely endearing to watch. Hustlers allows prolonged periods of screentime to be dedicated to just watching its characters be nice to each other so that we can understand why they’d develop such a deep familial bond with each other. A later sequence set at Christmastime is similarly poignant in its depiction of unbridled kindness exchanged between its assorted lead characters. These are the kind of intimate small-scale scenes of character interactions that so many movies forego entirely but Hustlers embraces, much to its benefit.
The empathetic nature of Hustlers towards its characters isn’t just reserved for when they’re all hanging out together, it’s also on display when it examines them individually as people. Dorothy’s eventual backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the movie in a moving manner (complete with a visual manifestation of her internal worries that proves to be one of the most disarming visuals in the feature) while supporting character Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) also tugs at one’s heartstrings with her backstory involving her family abandoning her once they found out she works as a stripper. Her birth family has failed her, but through the course of Hustlers we get to see her find a new chosen family in her friends like Dorothy and Ramona.
The more intimate character sequences help to make the darker second-half of the movie all the more interesting to watch as these characters jeopardize their chosen family with all kinds of moral compromises. These characters are also buoyed by a bunch of impressive performances, including enjoyable cameo appearances by Cardi B and Lizzo. But the best of the cast is handily Jennifer Lopez as Ramona. This is a complex character who has to fulfill many different types of roles in the story (mentor figure, best friend, morally ambiguous criminal, etc.) and Lopez nails them all with equal levels of conviction. Her dynamic with Constance Wu (who also delivers memorable work here) is especially commendable, the two of them have a believable rapport that makes you totally buy them as best friends and makes their eventual strife all the more emotionally trying to watch. Lopez is exquisite in Hustlers but she’s not the only part of the movie that proves to be impressive. There’s so much heart and remarkable creativity in the work delivered by writer/director Lorene Scafaria and company here in Hustlers, even the end credits go above and beyond to deliver something unexpectedly memorable!