NME at TIFF – ‘Hustlers’ review: this practically perfect stripper movie could win J-Lo an Oscar

Based on the true story of a gang of strippers rinsing the wallets of clueless Wall Street bankers, this New York epic is one of the most gratifying cinema experiences you'll have all year

She arrives on stage, skin glowing under the lurid neon light, a vision dripping in diamantes. The jangly pianos and groaning bass of Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ sound out as she seductively slips off her jacket and reveals the kind of barely-there outfit that would make a Daily Mail staffer’s jaw drop. She wraps her leg around a pole and drops to the ground, twerking as men in the audience roar in approval. Dollars are falling so fast she can’t catch them.

This is our first encounter with Jennifer Lopez’s character – the indomitable, unapologetic head of the pack Ramona – in Hustlers. It lasts no more than a minute and yet sets the scene for the one hour and 40 minutes of excellence that follows it, lingering in your mind like you’ve just met eyes with the messiah.

Hustlers is the kind of film that could turn any regular bloke into a die-hard misandrist: a powerful peer into the world of women strippers in New York as they live the high life, lose it, and find a way to win it back again. Inspired by a popular article published in 2015 by New York Magazine, it tells the supposedly true tale of a group of erotic dancers who, having been hit hard by the 2008 global financial crash, losing them many of their wealthiest clients, win back their fortunes by drugging powerful businessmen and coercing them into parting with hundreds of thousands dollars.

In the wrong hands, Hustlers could have been a car wreck: a misjudged, fetishised portrayal of women in the adult entertainment industry. But what was arguably one of its hardest selling points to male financiers in the early days (the film was made on a meagre, but well spent $20.7 million budget) wound up being its greatest asset. Directed and written by Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World’s Lorene Scafaria, its brilliance is indebted to many things, not least her satisfying, pin-sharp framing of this wild story.

The film had its gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week, traditionally a launch pad for awards season front runners, but the beauty of Hustlers is that it has something for everybody. It’s strong and ambitious enough to garner Oscar buzz (which it’s certainly doing), but the right kind of accessible and glossy that could make it hundreds of millions at the box office. Truly, it deserves both of these fates.

The cast is bursting at the seams with performers on their A-game: the aforementioned J-Lo is worthy of the awards love, while Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu convincingly embodies Destiny, the film’s doe-eyed and impressionable central character. Though I get the impression that Keke Palmer, as the no BS Mercedes (“like the car!” she winks to a client) might be its most unsung hero. Funnily enough, the film’s two cameo appearances – courtesy of Cardi B and Lizzo – aren’t merely shoehorned into a set-up that’s working perfectly fine in the first place. They’re part of the furniture, and add a fizzy edge to the film’s opening act as working girls in the club.

I can’t remember the last time a film made me feel quite as giddy as Hustlers did. From its grandiose opening moments and breathless slo-mo club scenes, it glitters from every surface: a strange, campy style of cinéma vérité that accurately embodies the dichotomy world from which these women came from, by turns scuzzy and luxurious. The true to life nature of Scafaria’s work, reminiscent in parts of a brooding Scorsese epic, is endlessly satisfying; her portrait of the financial crash and the angle she’s approached it from is practically note perfect.

What a delight it is that just when cinema is about to get snobbish and cerebral that a film as confident, slick and vivacious as this comes out of the woodwork and surprises people. There are men who’ve made films half as good as Hustlers that have taken home Oscars. If this film gets snubbed, mark my words: you’ll find me rioting in the streets in sky-high heels.

Hustlers had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. It hits UK cinemas on 13th September.

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