Director: Lorene Scafaria
Stars: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B
Hustlers has been called ‘the female Goodfellas‘ which assumes that the two films and their audiences ought to be delineated by gender, which therefore does a disservice to both. Just as women can take pleasure and nourishment from Goodfellas (a film which I, a man, have no particular affection for at all), so men can take from Hustlers (spoiler; I had a great time). This is a confident, well-performed and slick piece of pop cinema, buoyed along by an eclectic and finely curated soundtrack. Indeed, if this is ‘the female Goodfellas’ it is because director Lorene Scafaria affords her leading ladies the same aura of screen power that Scorsese gave to Liotta, Pesci and co.
Based on a true story, it tells of a group of dancers working the New York club scene who decide to take advantage of Wall Street’s rich and dopey clientele; drugging and then fleecing them of thousands of dollars at a time. What are they gonna do? Tell their wives they got robbed at a strip joint?
Hustlers arrives at a good time, picking up air in the wake of #MeToo. But women taking the power back is always good mileage, whatever the season, and Hustlers is savvy enough to recognise that this story and these women are more complex than that.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the opening stretch takes place in an immaculate pole-dancing fantasy land. Scafaria’s roaming camera projects an aura of halcyon times at the club Moves as the story starts up in 2007. If you want the usual downer truisms and clichés of this lifestyle perhaps watch Dancing At The Blue Iguana instead. What you’ll find here are the feel-good vibes of Magic Mike; the backstage cattiness and camaraderie of Showgirls (minus Verhoeven’s tacky excesses); the body-positive hedonism of Spring Breakers. All of these and more dance in the memory as we’re introduced to Destiny (Constance Wu).
Destiny will become the central figure in this enterprising little crime syndicate – the tale is told to Julia Stiles’ journalist Elizabeth by her – but to begin with she’s just the new girl, lacking in moves and hopelessly infatuated with seasoned pro Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Scafaria does little to hide the gay vibes bubbling beneath Destiny’s surface in these early scenes, and as the film develops so this initial (mutual) crush becomes a full-blown love story. The pacey criminal enterprise always takes centre stage… but Destiny and Ramona’s chemistry together is the heart that keeps the plot pumping forward. Their early scenes almost have the same energy as Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the start of A Star Is Born. Meanwhile, pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo help the diverse supporting cast to crackle in the margins.
Their presence is missed a little as the years go by, the credit crunch hits and the cast of characters undulates. Hustlers moves this way; it documents peaks and troughs in these women’s lives. Riches come and riches go. The highs get higher and the lows get lower. Ramona’s attitude to robbing New York’s wealthiest is hard-nosed. She takes no prisoners. As Destiny gets deeper into it, her conscience weighs on her more and more. Both mindsets are given credence.
Jennifer Lopez hasn’t been around the block as much these past few years, but her turn here is fierce. Her cinematic roles have never really been the subject of serious study (and I’ll admit I’ve seen very few of them), but Hustlers feels like a game-changer; she is on a separate hustle of her own. The prizes she’s eyeing are those little awards season statuettes. Whether she’ll get any remains to be seen, but she’s done the work to put her in serious contention. As has Constance Wu. Always the lead of the film, she makes Destiny an emotionally available protagonist. Her rattled conscience asks us to question where our own sympathies lie. Do these men deserve what they get? Do these women deserve what they earn? The Robin Hood vibes are triumphant, for sure, but the process is inherently tainted and the sense of downfall inevitable.
In this sense, Hustlers can feel a little safe; a little tied to formula. When it luxuriates in character, when it relishes the moment, it’s an absolute blast. But there is a tendency to cliff-note, and some transitions hit a little hard and fast. The film comes in at a tidy two hours – which is respectable in this age of egregiously overlong movies – but there’s a sense that Scafaria could’ve gotten away with getting a little bit more of her Scorsese on, if you catch my drift.
Scorsese is the most eminent and tangible influence on display, so you can see why those simplistic comments I mentioned up front have been drawn. The point to take away is what a compliment it is to her craft. This is a dexterous, light-footed, wonderfully assured piece of work that ought to be taken as seriously as any of its more masculine contemporaries. Tellingly, the film’s aggregate score on imdb has already been sabotaged by those who feel threatened by films like Hustlers, in a manner reminiscent of that which befell Black Panther and continues to stymie Justin Simien’s excellent Netflix series Dear White People. A sadly pathetic symptom of exactly the culture we need movies like Hustlers to push against.
Allow me to end with my own simplistic (but hopefully helpful) soundbite. Hustlers is exactly the middle ground between Ocean’s 8 and Widows that you want it to be. I own both of those movies on bluray, and I’ll be picking up this one when the time comes.
Now, what have we gotta do to get Hustlers XXL into production?