Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is a refreshing revitalisation of the crime genre. Driven by two great central performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, this is a film that initially feels like it’s pulling from the pool of masculine drenched crime-focused films that have proliferated throughout cinematic history. Sure, there’s more than a couple Goodfellas-esque moments throughout the film, but for the most part, Hustlers feels like it’s paving the way for a new generation of crime focused films.
Namely, one that’s driven by women.
The plot, in short, follows a group of New York City strippers who, once showered in greenbacks, find themselves desolate and desperate after the 2008 financial crash that obliterated markets around the world. Cashed up businessmen found their corporate card life vaporised, and in turn, the sprouting industries that flourished due to their crotch-focused adventures were suddenly found wanting. Lopez’s Ramona spins up a plan that’ll keep them well dressed and comfortable in their Upper East Side apartments: go ‘fishing’ and pick up the men at the bars, drug them, bring them back to the strip clubs and rack up a mammoth bill on their credit card. Along for the ride is Wu’s Destiny, Keke Palmer’s Mercedes, and Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle, all of which join together to fleece the rich of their ill-gained wealth.
Intercutting this story of neon-soaked, R&B scored criminality, is Julia Stiles journalist, Elizabeth, gathering information for an article about the strippers escapades. We meet her as she interviews Destiny, who asks her through tears to not look down on the women, requesting that she help destigmatise the work that strippers and sex workers do.
The article that the film is based on, The Hustlers at Scores, is less sympathetic to the world of strippers, making the biggest departure from the text to the film the level of empathy that Scafaria employs for these characters. It’s clear that as writer and director, Scafaria wishes to help destigmatise the stripping industry, and she manages to do this perfectly by desexualising the dancing, removing the titillating aspect of stripping that has so long been glamourised in films throughout history.
Sure, the dances that make up the first third of the film are impressive, but we’re left with admiration for the talents of the dancers rather than being satiated by the allure of skin. This is reinforced by the extensive look into the personal lives of the dancers, with Destiny putting her money towards helping her Grandmother (played by the ever joyous Wai Ching Ho) buy her house. Family life is key, as both Destiny and Ramona work to give their daughters good lives.
Scafaria does a superb job in forging new ground for the women focused crime genre, and while Hustlers wears its inspirations on its sequined studded sleeves, it’s mostly because there are precious few stories told about women pulling off crimes and schemes like this, making this feel like a blueprint for future films of this ilk to follow. The focus is less on the crime, and more about understanding and empathising with the women who are ripping off the scummy men. If you want to drag the Goodfellas comparison back into the fore, these family moments (notably, a Christmas celebration) are akin to the great dinner scene in Goodfellas that arrives as a welcome reprieve from the violence and criminality, allowing you to see the humanity in the characters and understand their motivations even more.
As for the men getting ripped off? We don’t need to know them as characters – we’ve lived through that world, we know who they are, we know they came through the financial crisis with no issues. When Destiny is in a bind, she calls an old patron with the view of using him for his money, the film smartly paints him as dispensable. Men are not the saviours here, in fact, they’re pathetic, moronic, and unsupportive – the police laugh at the victim that comes forward, joking about how foolish he was to lose everything at a strip club. What makes Hustlers so impressive is the fact that Scafaria never allows the film the feel this way about the men. If anything, the inadequacies, the vices, the addictions, the sex-focused mentality of men is given enough rope to hang itself on here. And, as a man, I can safely say that we only have ourselves to blame.
Hustlers is an ensemble piece, but those two central performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez are jaw droppingly impressive. Wu delivers the best performance of her career, and it’s of a calibre that shows that she has a wealth of great roles to come ahead. For Lopez, Hustlers works as the reminder of the promise that she gave way back with Out of Sight and Selena, showing that when given the right material, she can deliver a knock out performance. Elsewhere, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart showcase superb comedic timing, both delivering perfectly realised supporting characters.
Hustlers is like the promise of a million bucks – you’ve spent it in your mind before its even gotten into your bank account. The giddy high of thinking about what you’d do with that money comes with a disappointing low, and right before the third act kicks in, you’re left to sit in that low for an uncomfortable moment. Then, bam, that climax kicks in like a 3am Jägerbomb, kicking you back to life with a boozy woozy head cloud, and giving you a searing finale. It’s exhilarating and exciting.
Lorene Scafaria has created a heck of an entertaining film, one that’s full of humanity and heart, and a healthy dose of energy and vibrancy. I cannot wait to see what she does next. As for the crime genre? Well, I cannot wait to see what films come out that are inspired by this.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles
Writer: Lorene Scarfaria, (based on a magazine article by Jessica Pressler)