I actually really like Jennifer Lopez, but she’s so often under-utilised and she doesn’t exactly have the best string of films to her name so my expectations weren’t exactly high for this one. But I love it when I’m proven wrong. “Hustlers” is a genuinely well made, gritty, fast paced and gripping story with a ripper script and a career defining performance by Lopez. It’s one of those films that exceeds expectations by taking a well worn formula and taking the elements which usually get ignored and fleshing them out thoughtfully and meticulously.
Hustlers is the second film directed by Lorene Scafaria and tells the true story of a group of former strippers who, when business is sparse following the 2008 Wall Street crash, form a rink of con artists who seduce, drug and trick wealthy bankers into spending thousands at a high end club and waking up the next morning with no recollection of the night. The film is cleverly structured around a 2015 interview in New York Magazine with one of the ringleaders, Destiny (Constance Wu). Through a series of flashbacks, the film portrays how Destiny was befriended by Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez) and how their schemes escalated from small cons against scumbag men who had themselves lied and cheated their way to the top, to spiralling completely out of control and taking innocent people along the way.
There are certain similarities to “Wolf of Wall Street” in the basic plot points and themes of the film, notably in the undeniable allure in their extravagant and, for a short time, untouchable existence. What Hustlers actually does better than “Wolf” is that it creates a real dichotomy between the highs and the lows experienced by Vega and her crew. When things were good, things were very good indeed, with the women popping champagne and exchanging fur coats and Fendi bags in a lush 5th Avenue apartment. But when things were bad, these women have no education, no work experience and no prospects, with children and feeble grandparents to look after.
The film does well in not trying to justify the actions of the women too much or to try and paint them as victims seeking their just and righteous vengeance on the world, which could have happened very easily. Instead the women are portrayed as savvy, cut throat, opportunistic, and flawed. By not shying away from this, the audience is allowed to relax and buy the women as actual people, warts and all, not just two dimensional figures with no autonomy or capacity for corruption. There are moments when the women try to justify to each other what they’re doing, in the same way that we all sometimes seek to appease own own conscience when we know we’ve done something bad, but that conscience is easily quashed when nobody gets caught.
Performance wise, Lopez is the undeniable stand out. This is the grittiest and most complex character she’s played, and it was gratifying to see her properly stretch her acting chops. She plays the duplicitous nature of Vega’a character so well that you can barely notice when Vega is being deceitful or genuine; Vega knows how to manipulate and charm people for her own gain, and Lopez plays her in a way that even as an audience member I felt myself being duped.
There are certain aspects of the film which could have used a touch up; Constance Wu as Destiny probably wasn’t the best casting choice, she was by far the most predictable and unenlightened performance, but maybe that was intentionally done so that she’d serve as a foil against Lopez. I also thought that Ramona and Destiny’s initial meeting was a little too convenient and rushed.
In saying that though, the script is largely sensational; there’s a particular scene in which Ramona tells a story to her girlfriends after Christmas dinner, it didn’t serve to further the plot and the film probably would have worked just fine without it but it showed the relationship and dynamic between the women so organically that it didn’t matter. It’s something that Hustlers does well where so many other Hollywood films stumble; it’s so much more effective to establish relationships through the ordinary interactions and well written dialogue, allowing the audience to figure it out for themselves rather than treating them like idiots and blatantly spelling it out for them.
Hustlers is an electrifying twist on the mobster crime thriller with a strong leading cast and masterful direction. This film could easily have been another lukewarm J-Lo flick, but more than anything else, Hustlers is a reminder on how powerful a relatively simple story can be when all the elements are executed with proper skill and care.
By Jock Lehman