We were all only 7-11 years old when the Great Recession hit, and some of us remember it more vividly than others. Now, with hindsight as our ally and curiosity guiding the way, we continue to learn more about this tumultuous period from those that lived it more acutely than us.
Lorene Scafaria’s newest feature film, “Hustlers,” takes us to one of the sneakiest corners of these financially tarnished United States circa 2007-2013: a strip club called Moves in New York City. In its own way, it’s a spiritual sequel to Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” but on a grassroots level that is just as materialistic and unabashedly American. “Hustlers” is an emotionally rich tale that goes much deeper than you’d guess, with even more panache than you’d expect.
The greatest asset through the entirety of “Hustlers” is its score. A movie that takes place in a strip club would understandably have music on its mind, but every cue is pitch-perfect both inside and outside of Moves’ dimly-lit walls. Scafaria told The Los Angeles Times that she thought of a film as a musical, and her vision pays off.
From Janet Jackson to Frankie Valli, Scarafia’s song choices effortlessly fit into each scene. The best moments are the late 2000’s pop and R&B hits, perfectly setting up each year without feeling like a gimmick. There’s even a surprise cameo that won’t get spoiled in this review, and the build-up and execution are fun enough to warrant its own ticket.
The cinematography and editing are both exceptional as well, working cooperatively to create a brisk pace, moving concisely underneath the juxtaposing colors of clubs, bars, single-family homes, penthouse suites and shopping malls. You feel participatory in the crimes and seduction of the hustlers in questions, but the camera never exploits gratuitous nudity, always focusing on what’s beneath the characters’ skin instead of just the surface.
Past the flashing lights and high-energy tunes, however, are powerful performances and an investing story. Even though “Hustlers” may not have the accessibility and schmaltz of the usual Oscar bait, Jennifer Lopez may have the makings of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Her turn as Ramona, a mother to both her fellow strippers and her daughter, is a high for the singer-actress’ Hollywood sensibilities. Constance Wu once again holds it down as a woman in a new world after charming audiences last year in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Side players Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart flesh our their limited roles well, and Lizzo and Cardi B add some spice, albeit for not very long considering their high billing.
Wu and Lopez’s central relationship, however, is a wholly engrossing anchor in a sprawling screenplay. Their journeys as two people of color working maligned jobs in the Recession Era are told with the respect and levity that it needs, and it certainly helps that their onscreen chemistry is great. Scafaria, who wrote alongside directing, flips between years to frame the story to the New York Magazine article that was originally published December 2015. This is a great setup to show the high stakes of the girls’ schemes and separates the film from the mediocrity of plenty of other crime sagas.
“Hustlers” could have been a guilty pleasure B-movie with some fun moments and lots of melodrama. Instead, Scafaria and company settle for nothing less than a thrilling and sexy crime drama filled to the brim with music, performances and dialogue that are opulent, engaging and honest. And if that’s not the American Dream, the Recession should never have ended.
Final Grade: B+
Carl "CJ" Zabat is a music columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.