Dir: Lorene Scafaria. Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B. 15 cert, 109 mins
“This whole country’s a strip club,” says Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona. It’s her grand philosophy: you’re either the ones throwing the money, or you’re the ones dancing for it. It’s also what she uses as justification for the fact that she, alongside a posse of fellow strippers, has been running scams on the men of New York City. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has taken a true-life escapade from the pages of New York magazine – a 2015 article written by Jessica Pressler – and turned it into a lean, fierce take on the nature of female empowerment in an inherently corrupted world. In the tradition of the cinema’s greatest crime sagas, Hustlers coaxes you in with the promise of pure exhilaration. Here, it just happens to arrive in the form of Jennifer Lopez pole dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”. And then, right when you’re comfortable, it pulls the rug out from under you. We’ve all got to pay for our excesses eventually.
We’re set on the same course of poisonous seduction as Destiny (Constance Wu), who we follow as she comes under the mentorship of Ramona – a beguiling force who has instant command of any room she walks into. At first, it’s all innocent and above board, but the financial crisis of 2008 changes things. The club is quieter now and their clients’ wallets are thinner, so the duo – alongside Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) – resort to picking up men in bars, spiking their drinks with ketamine and MDMA, and dragging them back to their workplace so they can steal thousands of dollars off them. They’ll later claim the men willingly forked over their money because they were having such a good time. It’s a foolproof plan, since these finance guys will either be too ashamed, too married, or simply too rich to actually report the crime.
Hustlers is an electrifying response to the deluge of stories we’ve had over the years about very rich, very bad dudes (it’s worth noting one of the film’s producers is Adam McKay, the director of Vice and The Big Short, which both deal with such characters). Finally, we can turn the tables on every film that’s used women, specifically strippers, as decorative accessories to drape over businessmen as they conduct their illicit backroom meetings. Or, failing that, to shake their out-of-focus tits in the background of a shot. Scafaria knows how to play around with cinematic conventions, having offered a clever twist on the romcom with 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Here, she indulges in all the visual tricks of the crime drama. We’re treated to giddy montages of dollar bills, champagne, and luxury cars. Most of the film is bathed in soft neons, courtesy of cinematographer Todd Banhazl. There’s even a fairly conventional structure at play: the narrative is framed around an interview Destiny gives, several years later, to a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) – presumably a stand-in for Pressler herself. We jump back and forth in time as these women accelerate towards their inevitable downfall.
There are certainly echoes of Scorsese’s work here, namely Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, since we’re watching Destiny’s morality chip away bit by bit. At first, it’s in ways she finds easy to justify to herself... until suddenly it isn’t. Interestingly, the director was initially approached to direct the project, before Scafaria was finally allowed a crack at it. It seems clear now that this was always a woman’s story to tell. You can see it in how easily she straddles the many contradictions at the heart of her script. This isn’t a simple-minded, gender-flipped fantasy of big stakes criminal activity. People get hurt – we’re made to confront that fact head-on. Yet, at the same time, it’s obvious how their actions were a retaliation against their circumstances. These are the men whose repulsive comments – “Hey, come here Lucy Liu!” “What did daddy do to you?” – Destiny had to grin and bear. These are the men who’d demand complete subservience, just because of the size of their paycheck. These are the men who only made their money by stealing from us all in the first place. Who wouldn’t want to finally have the power for once? Scafaria lets us see the world through someone’s perspective without requiring us to absolve them entirely. It’s not something that many films can achieve, but she does it with ease.
There’s also zero hand-wringing about these women’s everyday professional lives. This is exactly what the power of the female gaze can afford us: these women are sexy as hell – and extremely good at what they do – but the camera gazes only up in awe at them, it never leers with a sense of possession. It helps that the film is so perfectly cast. Everyone plays to their strengths: Wu is strong but brittle, Reinhart is doe-eyed, and Palmer is the ideal drinking buddy. There are two weighty cameos from the music world: Cardi B, with her signature cackle, and Lizzo, with her signature flute. At the centre of all things, of course, is Lopez. She’s not only phenomenal, but has the kind of screen presence that’s reminiscent of the stars of Old Hollywood, the ones who could set the screen on fire with a single look. It’s kind of performance that she could only deliver now, after investing years into building such an indomitable persona. Her Ramona is a multi-headed goddess; seductress; CEO; mother figure; puppetmaster; and best friend. When the first crack forms in the facade, it’s devastating in a way you’d never expect. Because, as Elizabeth (correctly) guesses, Destiny was looking to belong as much as she was looking to get rich. As Hustlers so beautifully shows, women contain multitudes.
Hustlers is released in UK cinemas on 13 September