Embracing the Gaga & greyness of ‘Hustlers’

Much has already been written about Lorene Scafaria’s third directorial effort Hustlers, though it’s only been in wide release for a few days. It sizzled onto the scene with a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the critical praise set fire to Twitter, a platform that dearly needs an extinguisher.

It’s a film that succeeds in the grey, teetering the line of morality. It’s a film about necessity and as said in the opening scene, “this is a story about control.”

The conversation has focused on Jennifer Lopez, because she’s absolutely fantastic and she’s Jennifer Lopez. She deserves all the praise she’s been given, and I hope the critics (and whoever hands out awards) continue to pile it on. She commands every scene with a star power akin to Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. An odd comparison on the surface, Gaga and JLo excel in these roles that feel designed for them. This doesn’t mean the roles are easy, rather they give each actor space to fill the screen, to display their rare and valuable skills to the widest audience available.

The more I think about this comparison, the more it rings true. JLo is, dear Lord I hope, a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, a category Lady Gaga lost in last year. The characters themselves are quite different, but the reactions they conjure up in audiences are closely aligned. When watching Gaga in A Star is Born, and JLo in Hustlers, you’re mesmerized. Nothing can pull you away from the screen. They snatch up every bit of your attention, every periphery of your sight. And it must be said that seeing these performers in a theater on the biggest screen evokes visceral, unstoppable admiration.

Their opening scenes are both on-stage, where they’ve been comfortable for decades. Both are performing a balancing act. Gaga sings an Edith Piaf tribute at the drag bar, and JLo dances to “Criminal” by Fiona Apple at the strip club, a faultless five minutes that’ll go down in cinema history as another reminder of her brilliance.  JLo bathing in the money being thrown wildly towards her is an energy we all need to embody. These characters are introduced in ways that are in the actors’ wheelhouses, immediately showing the audience what they can do. I can’t wait for future film students, over the next 20 years, to study JLo’s scene with a holy obsession.

It was Gaga’s first major film role, and it was JLo’s first role of this magnitude in quite some time. Both absolutely nailed it.

Music is vital to both characters, and Scafaria’s choices shouldn’t be undersold or undervalued here. Bravo for somehow getting the rights.  Scafaria picks the right song in the right moment throughout the film, and for that, we’re all thankful.

Comparisons aside, Hustlers is a stylish, slick, and speedy heist film that feels like a cross between Ocean’s 8 and The Big Short.  It’s what Ocean’s 8 was trying with desperation to be, and when another opportunity like that arises, I hope a female director is tapped to steer the ship.

Scafaria’s film isn’t black and white. JLo’s character, Ramona Vega, is the prime example. To the other strippers, she’s a mother, a leader, and an inspiration. She sidesteps the law with ease, moving with fluidity from apartment to apartment. She’s viewed as a loving mother, a savvy businesswoman, and a role model for the other strippers. Vega hosts the Christmas party, which is a real treat when it comes to Christmas montages.

Two things of note: during this montage, Vega is dressed all in white, and is the only one wearing a Christmas hat. She is the Jesus, the savior of the crew, pure and perfect in the eyes of the other women. Second, Constance Wu’s grandmother, her caretaker turned dependent, who has some unexplained money problems, mentions that she once danced with Frankie Valli. What a moment.

When you strip down the story that’s being told in Hustlers, it’s a stark contrast. Regardless of circumstance, the women in this film are drugging people and wreaking havoc in the lives of others, even if those others are awful themselves. Wu realizes the magnitude of their operation, whereas Lopez keeps moving forward unfazed. Our savior doesn’t mind mixing MDMA and ketamine in her Manhattan-overlooking kitchen. She’s Jesus, she’s Robin Hood, and she’s a protégé of the Sopranos and the Corleones.

The greyness of this movie is felt personally though. These characters are flawed, are struggling, and ultimately are (somewhat) relatable. We want to root for them, regardless of the damage they’re causing. They find family by proximity, and they work with what they have, making lives for themselves that previously were deemed unimaginable. We convince ourselves that they’re doing it out of necessity, yet every decision the characters make can be seen as right or wrong, depending on the argument and depending on your own experiences.

Scafaria crafts Hustlers so that the only option is to embrace this greyness. We embrace the flaws of Lopez, Wu, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart. We embrace the strip club and all of its cameos, not just on Usher night. We embrace these women, and we should. They’re badass in every way.

They deserve our embrace, but they sure don’t need it.


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