By Darryl Goh
Hustlers is the type of movie that would make you raise an eyebrow when you look at its cast list. As relatively fresh faces to the movie industry, the pressure would be on Constance Wu, Cardi B and Lizzo to prove to critics that they have the acting chops to match media darling Jennifer Lopez.
Inspired by a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler that went viral, Hustlers centres around a group of strippers – Roselyn Keo (“Destiny” in the movie) and Samantha Barbash (“Ramona” in the movie) – in New York City as they lie, steal, and hustle dozens of wealthy men when the sex industry bottoms out during the late-2000s financial crisis.
The movie follows the life of single mother Destiny (Constance Wu), as she navigates her way to the top of the strip club world under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced stripper. Together with a band of fellow dancers, her limits are tested to see how far she is willing to go to earn money.
The movie tells a story of sisterhood and family which is rooted in realism, where characters are ultimately forced to choose what to prioritise. Destiny and Ramona initially play polar opposites of good and evil, but individual dualities are revealed at crucial plot moments, eventually achieving a Yin-Yang dynamic. Such is life, and it makes for a great plot.
I particularly enjoyed how Hustlers shifts your perspective on the financial crisis, and how it causes a ripple effect on seedy industries such as strip clubs. To flip the narrative of pitying financiers who became less rich to hating on them (Ramona: “They screwed up the economy but still got away scot-free”) would make you question if the crying trader on the stock exchange floor did this to himself out of greed.
The casting was done wonderfully, with the main cast roughly matching their real-life personas. JLo practically glows on screen, outshining the entire cast with her performance. She can add pole dancing to her resume now – is there anything she cannot do?
Constance Wu’s second outing as movie lead is commendable, but appears lower energy than Lopez. Thankfully, the chemistry between Destiny and Ramona far makes up for the at times expressionless performance when Destiny struggles with her ethics code.
Cardi B and Lizzo essentially play themselves and are glorified cameos, appearing in marketing material only to milk their star power as musicians. Non-fans of these rappers might not be too excited to see them as their roles did not add anything substantial to the plot, putting a drag on the pace of the film. It could have been Cardi B’s moment to shine on the strip pole but her recovery from beauty treatments during the filming made her miss the opportunity.
Hustlers is a realistic story about building an illegal empire. It is easy create a fantasy world when it comes to stories about taboo businesses, but keeping it grounded helps the film to shine. 4/5 strip poles. Rating: M18