I’ve sometimes talked about how recent true story crime dramas feel a bit “Scorsese light”. They usually consist of morally ambiguous characters narrating over years of their exploits, all driven by music and quickly paced and edited scenes. This obviously comes from Scorsese’s arguably most famous film, Goodfellas, which sort of set the standard for this kind of narrative format. However, while his influential style clearly had an effect on a lot of modern filmmakers, there’s always a sense that something is missing. 

Hustlers follows Dorothy aka Destiny (Constance Wu), a stripper trying to make ends meet in New York City. She meets experienced stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who shows her the ropes… or pole, rather. Since they’re desperate for money and the men they entertain fall on the sleazier side, Dorothy and Ramona start a crew of women to seduce the men, drug them, and steal their money. But of course, all actions have consequences. 
Well, it’s finally happened. A filmmaker who was clearly influenced by Scorsese actually pulls off making a film that feels completely in spirit, style, and tone of his crime classics. Based off the article The Hustlers at Scores, screenwriter/director Lorene Scafaria brings this stripper story to life with boundless energy. This is a completely character driven film with some pretty low stakes, but Scafaria’s style keeps it consistently entertaining and exciting. There’s probably five minutes of the runtime that doesn’t have any sort of music going on, with pop, rap, and rock songs constantly bumping in the background. Scorsese-lite films like War Dogs and Legend had soundtracks that drove their narratives, but a lot of the music choices felt very obvious or forced. Every song choice here fits perfectly with the scene and the emotion you’re supposed to be feeling, and it’s also a very eclectic mix of genres. The sound mixing is the star of the audio show, though. It’s so detailed and immerses you so much in the film, especially in the busy strip club setting. There’s one pivotal scene where the film goes completely silent for about 20 seconds. Thankfully, my theater was quiet, because you feel the impact like a ton of bricks. It’s also very refreshing having a woman direct a movie like this. Since a female is at the helm, you never get the sense that the occasional stripping scenes are sexualized or provocative. They obviously are to an extent, because, ya know, stripping and all, but it’s done in a way where it’s shown to be like an art form, and it is. It clearly takes a lot of skill and being fit to pole dance, and these sequences in contrast to others show the highs and lows of being a stripper. 
For a film about criminal strippers that has people like Cardi B in it, this is a much more intelligent and nuanced film than it lets on from its surface. While our protagonists are drugging men and stealing sums as high as $20,000 from them, it doesn’t excuse or justify their actions. Dorothy and Ramona are partially in it to get revenge on all of the men who disrespected them over the years, but the main reasons they’re doing it is to support their family. It’s akin to a broke man stealing a loaf of bread from a struggling family owned grocer to feed his starving family. His desperation explains his actions, but it doesn’t excuse them, just like the characters here. Dorothy constantly struggles with what she’s doing, but does it out of her perceived necessity. She’s really the only one who seems to feel any remorse about it, which adds an extra layer to her character. It’s just another element of that Scorsese influence, where we follow a story of morally questionable characters and learn why they are the way they are. The characters here are obviously dramatized from the article, but these were real women that did this, and real people have flaws. None of the characters are exactly sympathetic, but you know where they’re coming from, and it makes you question how far you would go once you’re pushed to the edge. 
The excellent performances from everybody involved just hits those themes home even more. I’ve always felt Jennifer Lopez has never really gotten the recognition she deserved for being a talented actress. Perhaps it’s due to her mediocre choice of projects, but I always felt she was an actress who could really get in tune with her characters. She owns the screen here as Ramona, commanding every scene with her charisma and allure. She’s almost like a mother figure for Dorothy and you can see the love and care in her eyes, but you also see something else. You can see that she clearly takes herself seriously, is sure of herself, and isn’t afraid to take whatever she wants, however she wants. Lopez shares a majority of her scenes with Constance Wu, who is a terrific lead actress who more than holds up the film when Lopez isn’t present. You can always see the conflict in her face, questioning what her next move will be or how to deal with a high-stakes situation. Everything feels very real and natural, especially the relationship between Dorothy, Ramona, and their two cohorts Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart). There’s a genuine bond between them that you can feel, especially when they’re just having fun and dancing together. While Mercedes and Annabelle aren’t as developed as Dorothy and Ramona, Palmer and Reinhart imbue them with enough personality to flesh them out a bit. I would have also welcomed a bit more conflict and stakes in their friendship, but regardless, you really felt the bond that was built up over time. 
The thing that you must keep in mind with a film like this is that the characters aren’t supposed to be good people. There are numerous stories about terrible people and those stories are told because they’re interesting. Scafaria isn’t asking you to completely sympathize with the characters, but she’s asking you to understand them as real people, just like Scorsese does. While Hustlers doesn’t quite have the depth that something like Goodfellas does, it tells this true crime story in a visually and auditorily stimulating way. It’s the kind of fun you feel conflicted about, but when you break it down, fun is still fun. 

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