You could say Adam McKay has perfected the formula for the crowd pleaser with a conscience and an unobtrusive political agenda, except that this feels like crediting the wrong person for the success of the new movie Hustlers. McKay is indeed a producer here, along with former producing partner Will Ferrell as part of Gloria Sanchez Films, and there are aspects of both this movie’s presentation and subject matter that recall McKay’scThe Big Short. But Hustlers is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and fronted by Jennifer Lopez in a career-best performance, so giving a man a slap on the back feels particularly unjust. Hustlers is a movie about women taking advantage of men, but in a way that may be justified given the crimes of those men. Let’s give them credit for their own hustle.
Scafaria’s film is indeed another look inside the 2008 financial crisis, but from a decidedly different perspective. Prior to the crisis, one of the greatest measures of the health of Wall Street culture was how investment bankers, stock brokers and other profiteers filled New York City’s strip clubs with their hundred dollar bills and their credit cards. When many of those men lost their jobs, and there were more dancers than customers in the typical gentlemen’s establishment, the women had to get creative to keep making the money to support their own lavish lifestyles – or really, any lifestyle above the poverty level.
Enter Ramona (Lopez), a dancer who might be ageing out of the job if she weren’t such a charismatic personality and intoxicating stage presence. She’s also a clever schemer, and if the base of her stripper pole is no longer flooded by Benjamin Franklins (or, more realistically, George Washingtons), she’s got to figure out another way to get them. Her protégé is Destiny (Constance Wu), another single mother, who came under Ramona’s wing when times were still good. Neither of them is much good with the retail work that has replaced their dancing, so they recruit a couple of their former colleagues, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to relieve some of the still-profiting and perennially unpunished Wall Street types of the money they earned on the backs of hardworking Americans.
They figure, these guys won’t miss the money, and will be too embarrassed (and worried about their wives finding out) to tell the police they’ve dropped five grand in one delirious night they can’t remember. They can’t remember it because of, oh, a small concoction of ketamine and MDMA. This keeps them happy while knocking them out, but still conscious enough to sign the bill. The women approach them at a bar, slip the mickey in their drinks, and escort them onward to the club and its VIP champagne rooms.
This actually happened, but Scafaria’s characters are only loosely based on the real people. This gives her free rein to write a fun, partially fabricated, but exquisitively enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at this scam and how it progressed. The frame story, in which a journalist (Julia Stiles) interviews the principles for a magazine article in 2014, only enhances the package.
Hustlers resembles other procedural crime movies from esteemed male directors who won’t get mentioned here, because Scafaria has put enough of her own spin on this framework to give it a real sense of freshness. One of its freshest elements and best examples of Scafaria’s perspective is the relationship between the women. They are not just co-conspirators and business associates, but members of the same flock in a very real sense. In the first scene between Ramona and Destiny, where they are smoking cigarettes on the strip club roof in the middle of winter, Ramona wraps Destiny in the flowing excesses of the fur jacket she’s wearing, to keep her from getting cold. She is also claiming Destiny as her maternal responsibility. Their relationship is the film’s emotional fulcrum.
It’s also a great showcase for these two actresses, the veteran and the newcomer. Lopez seemed like she might be entering a distinctly different phase of her career with last year’s Second Act, about a woman of a certain age who makes herself over for a last chance at becoming a career woman. The trailer was scored with songs from the Cranberries and Salt N Pepa, and aimed at women Lopez’s age. You can throw all that in the bin after Lopez’ opening scene in Hustlers, when the 50-year-old gyrates her assets on the pole as the customers make it rain in front of her. While Lopez not going gently into the night is one thing to celebrate, so too is the culmination of everything the actress has learned in a career in which she has not always been celebrated for her chops. She owns this movie, showcasing both toughness (her smoking a cigarette as she stuffs money into her knee-high boots is a particularly memorable image) and vulnerability (her Achilles heel is her love for these women).
On the other side you have Constance Wu, who made a splash in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians and has followed that up with an entirely different but equally relevant choice. At age 37, and a veteran of nearly 20 films, Wu is a newcomer only in most of our minds. But it takes an actress with considerable skill and an unwillingness to be pigeonholed to play both Rachel Chu in that film and Destiny in this one. She’s sympathetic in both roles, as she cares for her grandmother here in addition to her child, but she’s also willing to show us real weakness of character. This is a woman who does the wrong thing on both smaller and larger scales on a daily basis, but she remains sympathetic because of how successfully Wu communicates her essential humanity.
Scafaria is the third collaborator who deserves a special showcase. She’s not new to the game either, but she’s certainly new to delivering a product on this scale that hits so consistently. You might say she’s familiar with New York from her first feature, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and with something more ambitious from her second feature, the apocalyptic Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Both of those films fail significantly in the execution. In Hustlers, every step she takes is the right one, which is no mean feat with the sophisticated structure of her script. She’s got everything flowing perfectly here, and the music choices are the lubricant helping that flow. (A couple classic Janet Jackson songs factor in, and it’s especially funny to see J-Lo groove to and name-check a Britney Spears song, as she’s effectively a real-life contemporary of both women.)
Hustlers has its cake and eats it too. It contemplates a world out of balance, where people hurt other people in a vicious cycle with no winners. It’s also a blast as a viewing experience. If it’s somehow hustling us as viewers, we are happy victims.