Early on in Hustlers you might recognize a song in the background playing at the club as Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” A song whose opening lyrics (“I’ve been a bad, bad girl/I’ve been careless with a delicate man”) cheekily sum up the premise and the allure of this feel-good-feel-bad movie. And that’s not a bad thing. An energetic entry in a current wave of what might be called Income Inequality Cinema — where the screwed-over working class fights for their piece of the 0.1% pie — Hustlers has its uneven elements but mostly entertains in a tale of strippers exploiting their exploiters.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, adapting a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers tells the loosely fictionalized story of a group of strippers who decided to go rogue in wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Led by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and her quick-study protégée, Destiny (Constance Wu), they con their wealthy clients each night, teasing and drugging them and casually stealing thousands of dollars they (likely) won’t miss the next morning. As a movie about the seductions of the flesh and the satisfactions of a well-executed con, Hustlers is thundering and invigorating, its pleasures obvious and right there on the surface. As a portrait of women at work, bickering and bonding and doing whatever it takes to get some measure of their own back, it’s smarter and more grounded than Hollywood has given us reason to expect, and told with a welcome matter-of-factness that can melt without warning into tenderness. Ramona may enter the movie in a shower of dollar bills, but in the next scene, she’s on a rooftop folding Destiny in an enormous fur coat, pulling her close and shiedling her from the cold night air.
Opening with a you-are-there physicality in its long tracking shot, Hustlers begins with one of its multiple tips of the hat to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the granddaddy of them all in gleefully amoral rise-and-fall true-crime narratives. Scafaria has even noted that Scorsese was one of many several filmmakers who passed on her Hustlers script before she was given a crack at directing it herself. Much of that script though crackles in its display of thievery and friendship, but it also frequently leaves out what seems like essential connective tissue. Besides undercutting the central Destiny-Ramona relationship, it sets up subplots and characters that are addressed and then dropped.
But wherever Scafaria’s script falls short, Hustlers is an exhilarating delivery system for Jennifer Lopez’s most dynamic performance since Out of Sight. It’s a role that seemingly reconfigures her cinematic image with such bold intelligence and purpose that it seems determined to make up for lost time. Lopez shoves the movie into her nonexistent pocket from the moment she strides out onto a neon-lite stage in a rhinestone bodysuit. Lopez’s Ramona seizes hold of the pole and proceeds to run through a series of gravity-resistant acrobatics that took the actress months to master but will have your jaw on the floor in seconds. But even with Lopez running off with most of the movie, there’s still a fine ensemble here. Wu, who seemed to be overshadowed by her co-stars in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, makes more of an impact this time, particularly in the framing scenes where she’s telling the whole story to a journalist (Julia Stiles). Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart as two of the cohorts in with Wu and Lopez, carve out moments of humanity despite being saddled with characters that have just one defining factor each.
Hustlers does bring its own tricks, in the way it complicates and even weaponizes the audience’s gaze, turning a blatantly sexualized spectacle into a kind of strategic reclamation. And it’s an interesting strategy to tackle. But Scafaria neither soft-pedals nor denies the basic, primal appeal of what her characters do for a living. Her strippers and sex workers may get stared like all other, but in this movie, they are also clearly and defiantly seen. Though it struggles with some of its uneven elements, Hustlers thrives in its portrayals of larceny and female friendship. Nobly taking female empowerment as a means of revenge against vulture capitalism. And like its protagonists, who eventually got caught, Hustlers doesn’t ultimately manage to get away with it, but it has a pretty good time in the process.