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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hustlers

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu sizzle in this smart, sultry crime drama, which brings a scathing true story to the screen.
By Sarah Ward
October 10, 2019
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Hustlers

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu sizzle in this smart, sultry crime drama, which brings a scathing true story to the screen.
By Sarah Ward
October 10, 2019
  shares

Kudos to the bright minds behind Hustlers' many needle drops. When the film's trailer hit, it used Cardi B's 'Money' as its soundtrack — not only nodding to the rapper's co-starring status, but capturing the movie's materialistic vibe with its sultry lyrics about diamonds, jets and oh-so-much cash. In the picture itself, Janet Jackson's 'Control' initially does a similar job, opening the feature with a statement that really couldn't sum up its characters better. While they're literally rolling around in moolah until the global financial crisis hits, Hustlers' resourceful strippers are always at the mercy of their banker clientele. Forced to get creative when times get tough, they turn the tables on the guys usually throwing notes their way, hatching quite the entrepreneurial scheme to reclaim their bodies, lives and independence.

The pesky little fact that, by drugging well-off men, running up huge charges on their credit cards and pocketing the profits, these gals are as shady as their Wall Street marks — well, Hustlers has a music cue for that also. It might seem obvious to introduce Jennifer Lopez's Ramona, the mastermind of the group, to the sounds of Fiona Apple's 'Criminal'; however, her eye-catching entrance shows that her allure is as seductive as the song's beat. Elsewhere, the film lets its characters scream in delight to Britney's 'Gimme More' and serenade Usher (as himself) to his own 'Love in the Club'. It uses Lorde's 'Royals' to telling effect, too. These are knowing, savvy music choices in a picture that's always coolly calculating. To truly unpack this real-life tale of bling-coveting erotic dancers scamming the financiers who just fleeced a nation, it needs to be.

Experienced at disrobing on the job, but nervous when she moves to a new New York strip joint in 2007, Dorothy (Crazy Rich Asians' Constance Wu) hardly follows the film's lead — at first. Known as Destiny on stage, she's barely getting by until she becomes as bewitched by Ramona as all the guys around her. Standing out among the other dancers (including not just Cardi B, but Lizzo), their double-act lights plenty of clients' fires and keeps the duo flush with cash. Then, post-GFC, the dollar bills stop raining from the sky. Fast forward to 2014, and Dorothy is relaying the details to Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), who's writing about the strippers' escapades. More than just a framing device, the pair's chats have a basis in actual events, with writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) adapting Hustlers from a 2015 New York magazine article.

It's not the heady, dancing heyday that Elizabeth is most interested in, however, and nor is the piece that Hustlers is inspired by. Rather, it's the hijinks that follow when Ramona concocts her pilfering plan. Aided by two other pals (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart), Dorothy and Ramona start living their wildest dreams — enjoying a level of wealth, excess, comfort, security and, yes, control that they've never experienced before. "I kept thinking there was some magic number," Dorothy notes as she tries to explain what the women got up to, how and why, although the film does a perceptive job of making that plain beyond her words. Playing out like a gender-flipped Magic Mike meets The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie doesn't turn its characters into heroes by any means. But, it saves its deepest savagery for another target: the money-hungry American dream that today's brand of corporation-favouring capitalism gleefully encourages and endorses.

It's a delicate balancing act, thoughtfully interrogating Dorothy and company's story without glorifying their actions — and it's one that Hustlers nails. Like many a great heist and gangster flick before it, this upbeat crime drama eschews the simplicity of black-and-white morality. Aptly, given that it's constantly bathed in neon-lit hues, it avoids mere shades of grey, too. Here, all that glitters seems gold and silver, but it's really laden with chrome and encrusted with diamantes. Scafaria styles her whole picture in the same fashion, with its shining frames welcoming viewers in, then exposing the stark, seedy reality.

The twist that makes Hustlers exceptionally astute as well as engaging and entertaining? While Dorothy and Ramona desperately want to gain control, they're still firmly steeped in a flimsy, male-defined world. Accordingly, their rise to the top was always going to prove fleeting and superficial — so the bonds they make and break along the way shape their story more than the cash, jewels and designer clothes. Hustlers never shies away from this fundamental truth, or from a warts-and-all depiction of its wily protagonists as well. It can't, and it's all the better for it. Of course, if  Wu and the especially fantastic Lopez didn't ground this larger-than-life true story in fleshed-out characters, it'd all mean next to nothing. Thankfully, from its spicy narrative to its potent themes to its stellar performances, Hustlers both works the pole and packs an almighty punch.

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