Early on in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers we follow Destiny (Constance Wu) in a single steadicam shot as she prepares for her first night at a high-end strip club in New York, the moment evoking Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas in the best possible way. Moments later, we are given an unforgettable introduction to the club’s star Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) with a show-stopping performance that is equal parts stunningly sexy as it is unmistakably powerful, leaving the viewer breathless and completely under her control. And with these two moments two things become abundantly clear: the collective women of Hustlers, both in front of and behind the camera, are not messing around and they are more than willing to shove that male-gaze right back in its stupid face.
Hustlers is a selfish Robin Hood-style tale based on a New York magazine story detailing how a group of New York dancers took matters into their hands after the Great Recession and decided to lure, drug, and steal back from the very same Wall Street execs who had ruined the economy and these women’s livelihood. “The game is rigged,” Ramona says about a system that literally commodifies these women’s bodies for a man’s pleasure and in which every man from the customer to the manager to the club employees demand the women give up their bodies for the lowest price possible. Why not turn the tables for once?
Though Wu’s Destiny represents our point-of-view character into the seedy world she has to navigate, Lopez is this movie’s undisputed star. So often we describe great male performances as being a role only that actor could’ve played. It is so refreshing to be able to say that there is no living actress in the world who could’ve played Ramona other than Jennifer Lopez. As the ringleader of the group, Ramona has to play seductress, mother, sister, and boss, and often she shifts seamlessly into those roles in the same scene. She has to be both soft and gentle enough to convince a increasingly growing number of vulnerable women to join her in her scam, and have the arrogant confidence and moxie to know she can pull it off. After a seeming eternity of being handed roles in anonymous romantic dramas and comedies, it is thrilling to see Lopez finally inhabit a role that was seemingly written just for her. This is easily her best role since her star-making turns in Selena and Out of Sight and if we lived in a sensible world awards consideration should be a no-brainer.
A lesser movie would be content to leave Ramona as the charismatic villain of this piece, but if Ramona represents the animating energy of this movie, it is the Wu matching Lopez step-for-step as Destiny that represents its heart. Whether the work they do is demeaning as it often is in the world of the strip club or decidedly criminal, what keeps the movie afloat is the warm and genuine friendship between these two strong women. And like any real friendship it is one with ups and downs, with moments of hurt and forgiveness, where trust is earned and betrayed, where the strength of their bond gives them the courage to pull off their audacious scam but is tested precisely because they become so good at their criminal activity. Their chemistry onscreen and the charisma with which they carry the movie is all the more exciting when you consider that Lopez is Hispanic and Wu is Asian-American, thrusting one more dagger into the fallacy that a starring cast this diverse couldn’t possibly open a movie.
Though the movie is a beginning-to-end blast, reminiscent of the many male-driven movies that derive entertainment from the criminality of charismatic men, it is never so entertaining as to make us forget the brutality and moral grayness of this seductive gang’s activities (eventually including Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart as fellow ringleaders). This isn’t to say that Scafaria has much sympathy for the victims, instead focusing on the economic hardships that made Ramona and Destiny’s hustling so appealing in the first place, of which most of their victims are, if not directly responsible for, at least still profiting from the economy falling apart. But she also makes us keenly aware that as entertaining as it is to watch, we are in fact witnessing the acts of criminals.
Scafaria trusts the audience enough to know that moralizing is not necessary. Instead what is so daringly refreshing about Hustlers is that, in a media-landscape saturated by bad men you still end up begrudgingly being drawn to like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White, there might be space for women to finally have their own anti-heroes to cheer. Maybe it’s because the targets of Ramona and Destiny’s ire are the fat cats of Wall Street, or maybe it’s because they look like they’re having so much fun along the way, but it proves very easy to sympathize and even forgive the scam artists.
Of course such schemes were never built to last, and if there is any disappointment to this movie it is that these ladies’ fall, when it does finally happen, plays out in predictable beats. The framing device featuring an older Destiny being interviewed by the journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) for what we presume is the upcoming New York magazine article similarly feels flat especially when compared to the much more enlivening action surrounding the framing device (but also features Julia Stiles! So it’s not a total waste).
These are however forgivable offenses for a movie that otherwise moves at such a frenetic and energetic pace, and makes the crucial great choice of ending leaving the audience wanting more. Hustlers should be celebrated for all the ways it subverts our typical Hollywood conventions: its diverse cast, its distinctly feminine and feminist voice, the way it tells a kind of story typically reserved for men and transforms it into a powerful women’s story, and its subversion of the male gaze. But more than anything else Hustlers is just a blast, and one not easily forgotten.
Runtime: 109 minutes
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Written by Lorene Scafaria
Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, Mette Towley, Wai Ching Ho, Emma Batiz, Mercedes Ruehl