Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddlers) takes the inspiration from Jessica Pressler’s “The Hustlers at Scores” article for New York to craft Hustlers, 2019’s most exhilarating movie. It follows the story of strippers; yet, at the same time, it observes the picture beyond that scope only. Scafaria, in writing and directing it, interprets Pressler’s coverage as a sexy, powerful, clever, and empowering—superlatively—take on how women taking care of each other against America’s disaster called 2008.
The whole based-on-true-scoop covers the backstory of Pressler’s article, alternating between timelines between the interview process and the hustles. The plot follows a crew of NYC strippers who begin to steal money by drugging debauched wealthy men visiting their club. All names and places were altered; characters are trimmed and amalgamated; but, the narrative stays in-tact. Pressler, a distant observer, has an on-screen representation in the form of Julia Stiles’ Elizabeth who interviews a pivotal character of the infamous hustle.
The narrative is mainly divided into three major timelines with the 2017 interview between Elizabeth and the protagonist, Destiny (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians), working as a framing device. The joyride begins seven years priors when Destiny, new to the stripper world, encounters the club’s diva, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, in her career-defining performance). Taken under Ramona’s wing—actually mantle—Destiny begins to indulge in opulent lives as strippers. With fellow strippers portrayed by showbiz regulars like Cardi B and Lizzo, the women harvest the tree of money from depraved stock traders and executives frequenting the clubs. The first part Hustlers moves frenetically, but, everything feels precise. It somehow reflects how life has gone for Destiny under Ramona’s mentorship: highly-energized and yet cleverly in control. But then, the trainwreck—the 2008 crisis—happens.
The infamous 2008 financial crisis oversees the story’s drastic shift into its finest form. Scafaria introduces a favorable twist to the usual caper/heist movie without stripping it off from the genre’s constant highly-pumped tension. What the director injects into the story is a sympathetic heart that leans more on how the women of Hustlers taking care of each other rather than on judging their morality. It’s exhilarating and, at the same time, touching to see how Wu and Lopez spearheaded the crew to survive a post-2008 America like it’s in The Big Short (note that Adam McKay is on board in this movie to produce it).
This is, definitely, not a story of saints nor it is a glorification of crimes; but, Hustlers takes its stance profoundly. It stands with the women as they empower each other and, as fate leads them, take advantage of the broken system while bashing off tottered patriarchy. That’s why Christmas at the penthouse scene feels warm and satisfying, making it one of the most heartfelt scenes in 2019. Hustlers embraces moments like that with certain kind of sensitivity; and, all of them are precisely made and cleverly written. Even in the raunchiest moments, Scafaria still manages to adorn them with witty dialogues and enough sympathy to say amen when Lopez’s Ramona asks: “doesn’t money make you horny?” as her opening line.
J-Lo rules as Ramona, showcasing her most compelling performance since Out of Sight, where she starred alongside George Clooney. She owns the diva persona but never once abuses the charisma to steal the whole moments. Her dynamic with Wu, who gets the top billing, is the movie’s precious gem. Wu, portraying the main protagonist, emanates her character’s vulnerability smoothly. And yet, it’s her chemistry with her crew—including restrained Lili Reinhart (Riverdale), Keke Palmer (Scream Queens) and, later, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Madeline Brewer—that makes overpowering those vulnerabilities possible and believable.
Witty, ballsy, and gritty, Hustlers profoundly sees how women take care of each other to survive. You simply can undermine it as a mere ‘stripper movie’ because it’s more than than. It, by far, is on the top of the unmissable 2019 movie list.