Whether its Martin Scorsese crafting another mafioso masterpiece or Robert DeNiro leading the ultimate heist in Heat, crime dramas are among some of the most revered works in film. At its best, the genre can display an artful balance between popcorn thrills and substantive content, with the latest entry in the genre Hustlers replicating some of the best aspects of the genre while infusing its own sincerely conceived ideas.
Set amidst the 2008 financial crisis, Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu), a down-on-her-luck former stripper who is trying to stay afloat as a single mother. When a former friend and colleague Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) comes back into her life, the two conspire a plan to turn the tables on the corrupt Wall Street brokers.
Writer and director Lorene Scafaria has made an impact with underappreciated works like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but I would argue Hustlers is her breakout as a craftsman. This is an impressive balancing act for Scafaria, meshing together an envolving true crime story along with a genuinely moving story of friends coming together against the crushing financial system that impacted their lives.
As a writer, she possesses apt knowledge of structuring a story, with its patient first act providing ample character development before the heist kicks into gear. Once it does, Scafaria delivers a stylistically inspired effort that balances glossy imagery with kinetic editing. There is a sense of momentum that builds throughout, keeping audiences on their toes until the final scene.
The beating pulse of Hustlers is its all-star cast. Jennifer Lopez delivers an emphatic slam dunk of a performance, stealing the film (and hopefully the Oscar conversation) from the start as the maternal leader Ramona. The actor’s raw bravado and alluring charm are easy to spot, but it’s the vulnerability at the core of the character that provides the film’s impactful emotional core. Constance Wu shines as Destiny, with supporting players Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and rap star Cardi B also making strong impressions with their energetic turns. I can’t say enough how strong the chemistry is between the respective cast, with the actors effectively selling the family dynamic of the central characters.
Perhaps the only aspect holding Hustlers back is its embrace of genre cliches, such as a reporter subplot that serves little purpose until the third act. Those minor issues shouldn’t stop people from having a great time with one of the year’s most refreshing crowdpleasers.