It’s not an exaggeration to say that Hustlers has something for everyone. It’s a great flashy Friday night trip to the movies, an unapologetic girl power parable, a suitably angry look at the class imbalance in the US, and a fantastic holdover for Martin Scorsese fans itching for their next fix. Lorene Scafaria’s film refuses to be boxed in to any one label or demographic, matching its plentiful style with moral substance, big laughs, and a desire to entertain, all elevated by a superstar performance from Jennifer Lopez. If Hustlers is Scafaria’s Goodfellas, then Lopez is its Joe Pesci, an absolute livewire who owns the screen.
Based on a true story chronicled in Jessica Pressler’s long read ‘The Hustlers at Scores’, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a gang of strippers who, after the 2008 financial crash crippled their industry, went after Wall Street bankers to drug and relieve of thousands upon thousands of dollars. At the centre is the conflicted Destiny (Constance Wu), who enjoys the money but can see clearly the moral issues as well as the inevitability of eventual failure. Though things do come crashing down, Scafaria lets us and the characters revel in success for a decent stretch, which is a hell of a lot of fun, especially as the crimes’ victims are such obvious villains.
Though Wu gets top billing, the ringleader of both the gang and the cast is Lopez as Ramona. From a jaw-dropping introductory dance (Hustlers never lets us forget how much genuine graft goes into the stripping routines) to a vicious screaming match outside a police station after things go bad, she bosses the film, and her absences are felt keenly. Also hugely impressive is Keke Palmer, who consistently lands the best jokes, almost threatening to steal the film for herself. Whenever Lopez and Palmer are on screen, in fact, Wu rather fades into the background, which unfortunately does dull Destiny’s emotional beats.
Julia Stiles is rather forgettable as the interviewer who provides Hustlers its framing device, and cameos for Cardi B and Lizzo are more distracting than anything, but the rest of the ensemble is a blast, and the fun they have is infectious. Scafaria carefully calculates how much we need of each character, flitting between groupings and ensuring that nothing outstays its welcome.
With Destiny’s voiceover guiding us through, Hustlers constantly invites comparisons to Goodfellas in not just its style (snaking tracking shots, a masterfully curated soundtrack) but its structure. Yet, unlike most Scorsese imitators, Scarafia understands that the brilliance of his films lies beneath the surface, in their ethical ambiguities and tugs of war between self-interest and loyalty. The stakes might be lower – no one’s under threat of being whacked – but the fall still arrives with a sickening thud, everyone getting increasingly anxious and mistake-prone as Ramona lets success go to her head and starts taking ever more unnecessary risks. The glitz and family spirit gives way to cold, jittery paranoia, Scafaria gradually removing the bolder colours from her palette as the consequences catch up.
It’s exceedingly easy to root for the women in Hustlers, as in the era where we know better than ever just how badly and thoughtlessly Wall Street screwed everyone, drugging and robbing its denizens seems to barely scratch the surface of the punishments they’ve earned. Slick montages of near-naked pole dances intercut with stock exchanges and business conducted while porn plays on the executives’ computers hammer home the sleaze of the financial sector, and while it may not be subtle, it makes the bankers’ various comeuppances that much sweeter.
Hustlers doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in its story, whether that’s degrading treatment at the hands of the strip club’s management and clientele, or drugged-up self-injury from the marks, but never traffics in too much misery. At its heart, it’s a glamorous heist film, built for maximum enjoyment, and though it often feels like a pastiche, it’s far too much fun to have you worrying about originality.