If you had told me at the beginning of the year that one of the best films of 2019 would feature Cardi B, I would look at you with an incredulous mad stare not unlike Constance Wu‘s look of bewilderment and awe at Jennifer Lopez‘s extreme dancing skills. Admittedly, Cardi B only appears in about ten minutes of the film, but every one of them is among the movie’s most irritating minutes. Every line of dialogue she delivers is like having your brain rubbed against a cheese grater. Luckily she departs quickly departs and allows Lorene Scafaria‘s Hustlers to shine.
This is not Scafaria’s debut, as she quietly put together two well-liked if lesser-known works in the form of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler. But Hustlers is poised to be her breakthrough, with early box office results suggesting a surprise hit. Playing almost like a reversed and contorted The Wolf of Wall Street, this story of strippers fleecing Wall Street mavens flips the perspective from the 2013 Martin Scorsese picture. Yet the movies aren’t dissimilar, as they both follow characters who live large yet still elicit sympathy when financial crashes cause them to resort to hard work. Hustlers explores this arc using the context of the 2008 recession, a strong female cast, and the hook of women dosing men with the drug Molly.
In this tightly-knit tale of friendship and desperation, Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu are both fantastic in leading roles. They infuse their characters with magnetism while also acting as classic unreliable narrators. To say much more would spoil the ending, but the way the movie plays with the idea of reliability keeps you on your toes, never entirely trusting the way information is presented. Just when you think you’ve predicted where things are headed, the film surprises you. That said, Hustlers perhaps unintentionally muddies its narrative by forcing its characters out of their lucrative stripping jobs post-2008 but allowing them to return to it at any point when convenient for the story. The message can therefore be difficult to interpret.
For an R-rated story about stripping, Hustlers is surprisingly tasteful. Some of the stripping scenes are sure to raise blood temperatures with their thin, highly-revealing stripper outfits, but there is no actual nudity in any of these scenes, and when nudity does occur it is almost clinical in nature. Scafaria’s subtle points about the business of stripping are sure to make people second-guess ever spending any money on it.
Hustlers greatest strength aside from a fascinating story and strong character relationships is its deft moralizing. The final ten seconds and line of dialogue are annoyingly on the nose, but otherwise the film presents an engaging dichotomy of morals. Some might object to the sympathetic characterization of women who drug men and stealing their money, but the movie never entirely endorses these actions, and it is always more interesting to think about why they do what they do than is to ponder the decisions of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. The snap response is that two wrongs don’t make a right, and no amount of greed and excess from Wall Street sharks justifies drugging and theft. Yet between the character conflict on whom to target and how, and the wealth the women bring to their families, there is a provocative lack of definite judgment on just how bad these people really are. There is a tendency for the film to lean in the direction of its protagonists, but at the same time it genuinely reckons with the morality of their choices without feeling either preachy or permissive.
Those dreading (or craving) a nudity-, drug-, and depravity-filled experience should give this film a chance with open minds. It offers an interesting consideration of whether bad circumstances justify bad behavior, and its powerful cast including Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart give it charm and personality. Lopez gives a career performance, and Wu continues to dazzle with her wide-eyed innocence, which Scafaria deftly plays on. With all this talent, its excellence should be no surprise.