de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

After the unexpected buzz out of TIFF left many suddenly scrambling to put this film on their awards radar, I can confirm that one of the year’s biggest surprises has arrived.

Based on a “New York Magazine” article by Jessica Pressler, “Hustlers” begins in the year 2007. Dorothy (Constance Wu), or Destiny as she calls herself in her professional life, is a struggling stripper just trying to make ends meet. Her goals in life are simply to take of her grandma, whom she was raised by most of her life, and maybe go shopping every once in a while. After making the move to back to NYC in hopes of making a successful career of stripping, she finds no luck. None of the other dancers want anything to do with her, the douchebag bros at the club give her no respect, always referring to her as “Lucy Liu” and she’s just not very good at her job.

That all changes when she meets the fearless Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a seasoned stripper who knows exactly what her clients want and how they want it. Destiny and Ramona develop a strong bond with one another, with Ramona showing Destiny the ropes on how to become a successful stripper.

After the financial collapse of ‘08 has left the club in ruins, with most of the staff now gone and outsourcing most stripping gigs to Russian prostitutes, Ramona decides to gather up Destiny and other former members of the club to get back at their clients on Wall Street. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, which leads the ladies to get messier and their scheme more dangerous.

Structured around Destiny giving an interview to a journalist (Julia Stiles) about the groups downfall, “Hustlers” quickly establishes a true crime vibe which ups the dramatic tension for the third act.

Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria (the underrated “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and “The Meddler”), “Hustlers” explores themes of sisterhood, morality and often serves as a sharp criticism of late-stage capitalism.

Scafaria is at her most accomplished here both behind the camera and on the page. “Hustlers” is filled with impressive camerawork and Scorsese-like long tracking shots that sometimes go on for over 5 minutes. It’s a stylish and impeccably crafted film that doesn’t skimp out on great characterizations.

Constance Wu delivers some excellent work as our lead. Nailing the shy, timid personality we first see her as and eventually the strong, confident presence she learns to grow into, Wu has proven that after this and her starring role in “Crazy Rich Asians”, she is a likable and charismatic star.

Jennifer Lopez gives possibly the best performance of her career here. Lopez, who makes perhaps the grandest entrance of any character since Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby” or Danny McBride in “This Is The End”, comes out on stage to a show-stopping strip tease set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”. It’s the type of entrance saved only for characters like Jessica Rabbit. Despite the grand entrance, Lopez actually delivers a subtle and intricate performance. She’s a character with many complex layers and is written beautiful by Scafaria. It’s at one minute showy and the next understated. This is a dynamic performance that’s as a good as anything you’ll see at the theater this year.

Scafaria also employs a wealth of supporting players that make the most of their respective screen time. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart both give compelling performances as former strippers that aid Lopez in her schemes against their Wall Street clients, even if the don’t get nearly the rich characters that Wu and Lopez have. Palmer’s defining motivation is that of her incarcerated husband. Reinhart’s character is a farm girl, recently disowned by her family, that can vomit on command whenever presented with any sort of anxiety.

Cardi B and Lizzo both have fun in what are essentially glorified cameos, but do make their respective mark. Cardi in particular, known for actually being a stripper before her days in the rap game, makes a sizable impression in her bit role, suggesting a future career in films.

What makes “Hustlers” feel so fresh and original is the depiction of its lead characters. Strippers in film are almost never shown in a positive light, but Scafaria gives these women the humanity that’s been missing for so long in cinema. These are women with their own problems, their own dreams, and stripping doesn’t define who they are. It’s progresssive portrayal of sex workers is completely refreshing.

The film also doesn’t shy away from challenging the morality of our heroines. These ladies are drugging and robbing men and sometimes to men who don’t otherwise “deserve it”. This adds another layer of complexity not only to the story, but to the viewer. We are rooting for these ladies the whole way through, but the waters get murkier after some truly shady incidents. This just further proves Scafaria as a gifted storyteller.

Also add in a great, era-appropriate soundtrack with inspired music cues to round things out. Filled with mid-2000’s hits from 50 Cent, Usher, Lil Wayne, Brittany Spears and Lil Jon that help give the film an authenticity and rarely ever detract from what’s on-screen.

If “Hustlers” falters in any way, it would be through some useless characters. Some character subplots tend to go nowhere and only exist to add more drama to the story when we already have so much to chew on. Specific characters only exist to further the plot and once that part of the story is fulfilled, the characters disappear from the film entirely.

Minor quibbles aside, “Hustlers” is an enormously entertaining and satisfying ride with elevated drama. Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria ups her craft to new heights, delivering a true crime story filled to the brim with swagger and infectious energy that’s makes for a surprise must-see.