Inspired by the New York Times article about a group of strippers who drugged and robbed their ultra-rich clientele, Hustlers is a story about women operating in a men's world. Thematically, it comes across like a more upbeat take on Widows, with a group of women forced to take drastic actions to carve out lives in a system designed to subjugate and exploit them.
A prime combination of real-life crime drama, a familiar social context and women coming together to form a self-made family, Hustlers is one of the most enjoyable times I have had at the movies all year.
I used to be able to have a take on almost every movie I saw. Nowadays, I feel less inclined. Partially, it is a growing sense of which kinds of films I have enough of a foundation in (thematically, generically etc) to make an interesting argument; the other is inspiration.
And, frankly, there have not been many movies that have inspired me to write lately. Not that it has been all rubbish. There have been some great movies I have seen - but the muse just was not on-board.
The last couple of weeks, it feels like the dam was beginning to break - and Hustlers was a big reason for the breakthrough.
I do not know where it started, but I have always been a fan of movies centred around women coming together to solve a specific problem (Do not mistake this as a sign of some greater 'woke-ness' or sensitivity on my part - as noted in a previous review, I did not see The Craft till a week ago because of ingrained YA bias).
There is something inherently dramatic about women and female friendship, sans any romantic component. Past movies that fell into this category include last year's Widows, or Whip It, Sunshine Cleaning, - even if the stakes are small, there is a real satisfaction from witnessing this kind of camaraderie. And that spirit of togetherness is a big part of why I enjoyed Hustlers so much.
Right from the beginning, Hustlers sets out its thematic foundation: before we see any of the characters or the club they work at, we hear the opening lines to Janet Jackson's 'Control'.
'Control' and its parent album signaled Jackson's break from her father's control and the pre-fabed version of pop on her first two albums. An important meta-textual reference point, the song lays out the movie's underlying theme: women taking control of their lives from the men who think they are instruments of their own desires.
It never felt like the filmmakers were leaning into the exploitative potential of the story and the characters' profession - there is not much flesh on display and the only time we see a stage number is the introduction of Jennifer Lopez's Ramona - even then, it is not solely about her sex appeal. The scene is framed from Destiny's POV, the camera sharing her fascination and admiration for the star of the show.
Let's get to Ms Lopez first. I have not seen Jennifer Lopez this deep into a role in years. She's always been good, but it always felt like she was trawling in the shallow end, trying her hand at Sandra Bullock-style rom-coms and a few Ashley Judd-style thrillers. Nothing against either of those two actresses, but it felt like Lopez did not quite fit those roles.
One of the big selling points of this movie was Angelica Jade Bastien's review, which eulogized Lopez's performance, and she was not kidding:
From the moment she appears onscreen, Lopez comes across like a queen; throwing off her cloak to reveal flesh feels less like titillation and more like a power flex. While Ramona's power is partly carnal, it is only part of it - her power goes from knowledge and experience - she knows how to navigate and out-maneuver the men who have the power and the money. They are merely obstacles standing between her and what she needs.
This is the first time where she has a role and a movie that fits her like a glove - there is an inherent steel to Lopez that has rarely been utilized in her previous roles. In most of her romantic comedies, she seems to play characters are meant to be more ditzy and less together, which never fit - she always feels far smarter than the roles she plays, and Ramona is a character that is all brain all the time.
What I loved about Lopez's performance is what I loved about the movie as a whole - none of the characters are villains. There is no virgin-whore binary here. These women are human beings, and film never demonizes their profession.
As the lead and heart of the movie, Constance Wu is great as Dorothy/Destiny - someone who is smart enough to put on a front, but too empathetic to keep it on. Wu exhibited a real pathos and vulnerability in Crazy Rich Asians, and that quality is magnified here.
It is great to see Keke Palmer in this - she gets some great comedy beats, although the role does feel like it exists solely to be comic relief.
If you are coming to the movie for Cardi B and Lizzo, they are both effectively cameos - although Cardi does get an important scene teaching Destiny how to lap-dance.
Cardi B tells our heroine to 'drain the clock, not the cock' and it sums up the movie - this story is not about the men, who ostensibly hold all the money and power - this is about these women working to hack out their own piece of the American Dream, here a rancid fantasy that can only be taken by laser focus and ruthless ambition.
The soundtrack is a highlight - not only is hte movie bookmarked by two of Janet Jackson's best dance songs, there is a strong selection of bass-charged tracks by Britney Spears, Usher and - in one pivotal scene - Lorde's 'Royals'.
The movie has a wicked sense of humor - there is a masterful sequence involving the central cast as they transport an unconscious client past a cop car. A tense sequence broken up by two great comic beats, it is a great example of the movie's delicate control of tone and the moving parts of the story.
Back by a great soundtrack, Hustlers is one of the most enjoyable movies I have seen this year, while also offering considerably more than what the average punter (or the raincoat brigade) may expect.
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