Reviewed by Benjamin Sepinuck (2019)
Upon the release of initial marketing for writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s crime film, Hustlers (2019), many comparisons were drawn to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, due to the similar ensemble casts and obviously the focus on strippers. Hustlers, however, clearly has some other significant points of interest at the forefront of its subject matter, and could just as easily be compared to films like The Big Short or A League of Their Own. Jumping between different time periods in a series of lengthy flashbacks, the movie explores the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis through the lens of its impact on the strip scene and the dancers’ relationships to Wall Street executives. Simultaneously attempting to examine the complexities of female friendship dynamics, Scafaria expresses a transparent disdain for the actions and attitudes of the bankers, stockbrokers, and businessmen who exploited the nation’s economy and links this behavior to that of those who take advantage of women, an abuse of power illustrative of the toxic mindset much of Hustlers spends critiquing.
The film is not simply a reaction to greed and misconduct, however, as Scafaria also makes a notable effort to delve into the ethical ramifications of the protagonists’ retaliatory response to exploitation and the questionable rationale for their conduct. The plot of Hustlers comes from a New York Magazine article from 2015 entitled “The Hustlers at Scores,” which is incorporated into the film through the inclusion of interviews conducted by Julia Stiles’ character, Elizabeth, a stand-in for the article’s author, Jessica Pressler. These scenes act as a narrative framing device, but also as a means to engage with themes of moral relativity and whether necessity can justify wrongdoing and manipulation. The presence of an Ivy League-educated reporter immediately lends some merit to the strippers’ perspective on struggling for opportunities, a legitimacy subtly contrasted by inserts of the lavish amenities Destiny (Constance Wu) possesses as a result of her misdeeds. Nonetheless, Stiles’ character is unmistakably an ally to Destiny and similarly vulnerable women, and Hustlers is an unmistakably feminist film.
An exemplary illustration of the importance of representation in cinema, this movie is teeming with powerful women of various backgrounds and agendas. Even in the inherently male gaze-ridden environment of a strip club, Scafaria delivers moments of definitive female empowerment absent of the influence of men. Much of the first act plays out like a buddy comedy as Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona gives Destiny a crash course in stripping, the two of them bonding over their successes and failures and simply enjoying one another’s company. While the men of Hustlers are not all faceless and irredeemable monsters, some being made explicitly sympathetic so as to demonstrate the questionable ethics of the main characters, the key to the film is undoubtedly the relationships between women and their capability to both lift one another up or bring each other down.
Unfortunately, some of the shifts in these dynamics are paced rather strangely, and the core relationship between Destiny and Ramona comes off as rather malleable and inconsistent. They seem to oscillate between sisterhood and bitter opposition with little to no provocation. Other character arcs also feel somewhat rushed or incomplete, possibly an inadvertent result of the heavy reliance on montage as a method of storytelling. Even outside of these sequences, most of the film is edited at a very fast pace on par with contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, save for select moments such as the impressive opening tracking shot which centers the frame and story squarely around Destiny. While the rest of Hustlers may not live up to this moments promise of elegant cinematography and compelling character-driven action, what it does deliver is a shockingly no-holds-barred attack on corruption and exploitation from a refreshingly distinctly feminine angle. Perhaps this movie’s biggest contribution to the form is indisputable evidence that no type of story belongs solely to men anymore.
To quote this review, please use the reference: Sepinuck, Benjamin «Review of the Hustlers», The Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi, ed.