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The stripper sub-genre in film is one that should be tread into carefully; there is a very fine line between exploiting bodies for money, and diving into a character piece. This is the difference between films like Showgirls (1995) and Striptease (1996), and films like Magic Mike (2012). Given that the last film was focused on males, it’s taken until Hustlers (2019) to have a female stripper film that can tilt the camera from body parts to the characters’ faces.

Hustlers is the true story adaptation of a “New York Magazine” piece focusing on a group of ex-strippers who drugged and scammed Wall Street brokers in the aftermath of the 2007-8 stock market crash. The film leads us through Diamond (Constance Wu), as she tries to navigate the stripper world in New York. Veteran pole-dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes Diamond under her wing, but as Wall Street began to suffer the shocks of the housing bubble crisis, the strip clubs begin to empty. This leads Ramona and Diamond to improvise a scheme in order to stay afloat themselves. Seeing that they can charm men and drug them asleep while they max out their credit cards, they begin to form an expanding scam ring with their old workmates.

It is fascinating to look at how the gentlemen’s club industry of New York suffered tangentially from the implosion of many of Wall Street’s biggest firms. A shot towards the middle of the film contrasts the packed club from opening scenes with a now deserted place; showcasing the fear of spending that was abound the US in the immediate aftermath of the bubble burst.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria is able to immerse us into Diamond and her world very effectively, having close tracking shots of her as she goes around her work. Scafaria also is able to put together a shocking, but overall effective cast that includes actors and singers alike from the aforementioned Wu and Lopez, to CW star Lili Reinhart, and singers Lizzo and Cardi B (herself an ex-stripper). Lopez is able to bring about a convincing “mama-bear” role, akin to Matthew McConaughey’s in Magic Mike. The singer/actress is able to bring about a restraint and control to her Ramona, that is unlike anything we’ve seen her do onscreen before.

The film chooses to have a very decentralized structure, which paired to the hustling aspect of the story, couldn’t help reminding me of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Hustlers uses the same vignette-style stream to tell the story and composition of the crime; however, unlike the mafia classic, it lacks consistency. Hustlers sought to paint a complex and sprawling picture of the operation its characters carried out, but by focusing only intermittently on Diamond, it never achieves a core character that transitions us into the different stages of the crime. Instead, Scafaria relies on montages that seem more appropriate for a comedic heist or sport film. Herein lies another inconsistency regarding the tone of the film. Scafaria declared that she wanted to show how the criminal ring affected both unethical Wall Street men as well as normal ones, however, she paired with this serious moral dilemma with comedic and tacky moments that seemed completely out of place. On one side, the film wanted to explore the dark reaches of what these women put about, and how that wrestled with their consciences, but then there was an audience-pleasing comedy that popped up randomly in the story, and robbed the more serious scenes of their weight.

Hustlers brings about a smarter and more serious dive into issues of morality and financial ambition than you might have expected, but the clashes with a scattered narrative structure and volatile tones dilute those initial aspirations into simple entertainment. These inconsistencies loosen a tonal and structural compactness that would have otherwise brought a fascinating immersion into a seldom-explored industry.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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