‘Hustlers’ Review: Lorene Scafaria’s Rousing Crime Epic Takes on American Inequality

There are few phenomenons with a broader set of consequences than the scourge of American greed. The lust for power and control that drives the actions of our country’s richest individuals doesn’t just keep their bottom line in check, it affects nearly every hard-working person from sea to shining sea. It’s the butterfly effect of American capitalism: a broker flaps his wings in New York and 10,000 people in Detroit lose their jobs in an auto plant. It’s a system stacked in favor of an often ruthless select few, and it’s been that way as long as anybody can remember.

The struggle to fight that hierarchy is the core of Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s electric new crime drama that’s quickly emerging as the surprise success of the year. Based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler titled “The Hustlers at Scores”, the film follows a group of strippers whose methods for conning money-hungry Wall Street denizens eventually grows into a full-blown criminal enterprise. Despite how it may sound, this isn’t just another breezy caper designed to keep you entertained for a few hours. Scafaria’s film is instead a startling condemnation of American inequality that lets women reclaim a narrative they’ve been excluded from since the concept of financial crisis entered the lexicon.

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Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in Hustlers (2019) – source: STXFilms

The 2008 financial crisis is a frequent point of cultural discussion, as it should be. The bursting of the U.S. housing bubble left virtually no one unscathed: countless businesses closed, millions of Americans were faced with foreclosure and unemployment, and most of the country watched in disgust as the men who caused it all got away with it. It’s a defining moment in modern American history that the film industry is understandably interested in mining for content, but it’s worth noting that little of the movies (or media coverage, for that matter) produced explores how women were affected by the crash. The Big Short, which stands as the most popular dramatization of the event, features almost no women outside Margot Robbie explaining finance terms in a bubble bath and funnily enough, a stripper who’s the butt of a joke about being tied to multiple mortgages. Hustlers is refreshingly only interested in how women learned to deal with the fallout, elevating what could have been another fun but unremarkable crime movie into something much more.

Leading the film is the powerhouse duo of Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, who command the screen as strippers Destiny and Ramona. Destiny is an initially shy, struggling dancer eager to earn more money to support herself and her ailing, widowed grandmother (a lovely Wai Ching Ho). She quickly finds herself under the wing of Ramona, an experienced member of the club who’s turned teasing men out of their money into an art form. The two make for a formidable team, earning hundreds of dollars each night as the height of Wall Street gluttony pigs out on their labor. It’s not long before 2008 and a new baby for Destiny brings it all crumbling down, leading her to play a part in Ramona’s latest, greatest scam: luring clients to the club, drugging them, maxing out their credit cards while they doze off and enjoying a sizable cut of the club’s resulting profits.

It’s the chemistry between Wu and Lopez that makes the film tick, painting a genuinely moving depiction of two women whose desperation to survive creates a lasting bond that speaks to the power of women leaning on each other when no one else is there to catch them. The buzz you’ve probably heard surrounding Lopez’s performance is worth the hype and then some; it’s her best performance in years, if not her career. Ramona is a driven, angry Robin Hood figure whose penchant materialism isn’t a drive but a consequence. She’s more interested in revenge, getting back at the men she deems responsible for the inequity of American life, and Lopez plays her with grace and fury that miraculously makes her a sympathetic if frightening ringleader. Wu is no slouch next to her, convincingly playing Destiny’s involvement in the scheme as if it’s more of dedication to Ramona, one of the only people who show her any respect, as opposed to a desire for more money.

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Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers (2019) – source: STXFilms

The real star of the show, however, is writer-director Scafaria, who navigates a potentially rocky sea of genre tropes with the poise of a genuine auteur. Much has already been written about how Hustlers plays like a Scorsese movie in heels, but Scafaria’s craft is well beyond that somewhat reductive definition. It’s genuinely astounding how assuredly Scafaria commands her vision; the film never loses sight of its thesis, whether it’s cracking jokes or buying into well-established plot structures. Everything in Scafaria’s script and in her camerawork with cinematographer Todd Banhazl has a tightly-wound purpose, all supporting her mission to strip this potentiality conventional tale of the male gaze and tell a rousing and intelligent tale about taking back control in a world designed to curb women at every turn. Even the most stereotypical elements of the screenplay, a seemingly shoehorned journalist interview subplot included, play a larger role in the film’s ultimate grand vision.

Lazy, harebrained takes will say Scafaria is approving of the girls’ crimes, but she’s less interested in excusing them than she is in getting at what lead to them to run their scam in the first place. She understands the deserved anger of these women and the pratfalls of their patriarchal circumstances, how the overarching greed of the men they service kicked them into the pit in the first place. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes in its final minutes, where a reflecting Lopez remarks that America itself is a strip club; some of us throw the money on stage, and the rest of us are fighting for it. That moment is the key to Scafaria’s deeply smart, transcendent slice of American mythologizing: at the end of the day, whatever we do is in service of someone far above us, gutless men who throw the rest of the country around like playthings. Why should be surprised a few women tried to reverse the odds?

Hustlers is a surprising, poetic film that pulls the rug from under your expectations of a harmless, fun exploration of a fascinating scam. There’s plenty of entertainment to be found — a great premise and a rowdy, hilarious supporting cast including Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart ensure it — but this film’s not so secret weapon is its boundless intelligence when it comes to exposing a side of an American tragedy we’ve yet to see explored on screen. Like the women in the film itself, Hustlers is a beautifully complex reflection: sad but still determined, and despite all the darkness that faces it, is still bolstered by compassion.

★1/2

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