Stories about women coming together and possibly breaking the law in the process aren’t necessarily new, but for every 9 to 5 (1980) and The First Wives Club (1996) we get roughly four dozen movies about men doing the same thing. The past year has seen a spike in female-led crime pictures, though, with the likes of Ocean’s Eight (2018), Widows (2018), and The Kitchen (2019) leading the charge, and while they vary in quality the other common thread between them is the added wrinkle of the women taking out at least some of their frustrations on the men in and around their lives. The latest entry in this less than crowded field — and arguably the best and most satisfying in many years — is Lorene Scafaria‘s Hustlers.
Told in flashback, the film is Destiny’s (Constance Wu) recollection of her time working in a strip club in the years leading up to and during the 2008 recession. She’s a single mom scraping by and trying to make ends meet, but those lean times end when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). The older, wiser, endlessly confident dancer has moved beyond stripping and earns money through a combination of personality, will power, and maybe just a dash of morally questionable shenanigans. She and a few others string along gullible men — usually egotistical, privileged, and wealthy Wall Street types — for an evening of drinks, dancing, and mild cavorting while running up their credit cards and helping themselves to their bank accounts. The men are too forgetful and/or too embarrassed in the days following to raise a stink, but when the recession hits and their wallets grow tighter the women add a new element into the scam. They start drugging the shlubs with date rape cocktails.
The scheme eventually crumbles like all great “rise and fail” tales must, but the key to Scafaria’s film isn’t in the criminal elements — it’s in the characters. Hustlers, based around a true story first recounted in New York magazine, is first and foremost a story about women. There are men in the film, obviously, but the male characters’ dialogue is kept to a minimum as representatives of customers, lovers, and bosses. They’re part of Destiny’s and Ramona’s worlds, but they’re far from the focus. Similarly, organized crime seeps into the tale alongside police investigations, but neither serve as propulsive forces here.
Instead, the stakes of the film are something far different — it’s about friendship. Friendship between women, strangers, who bond over shared concerns like children, sexism, the future, and putting food on the table today. That realization, that the film’s stakes are “only” the enduring quality of female friendship, is as pleasant a surprise as you’re likely to see on the big screen this year. Laws are being broken, people are in danger, the police are closing in, but it’s the bond between Destiny and Ramona that holds both the film’s suspense and heart up through its immensely satisfying final scenes.
None of this is meant to imply the film is soft or overly sweet in its depiction of these women and their world. The clubs run the gamut from flashy to sleazy with the customers typically leaning heavier towards the latter, but the women know exactly what they have and how to use it. Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl capture the women and their performances with less of a male gaze and more of an appreciation for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their work. All of them (including Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Cardi B, and Lizzo) shine both on and off stage and embrace their sexiness in varying ways, but it’s Lopez who absolutely steals the film and reminds viewers of what made her a star in the first place. From her brief but mesmerizing stage performance (set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”) to her near instantly iconic smash cut — Lopez, smiling and sequined, dressed only in her g-string and giant fur coat, and smoking a cigar — she brings both power and street sensibility to the character in ways that captivate and delight.
Scafaria’s script feels honest, if occasionally lightened to avoid unnecessarily crude beats, and the story being told is ultimately a dramatic one, but she and her cast also infuse the film with surprising amounts of humor. Lopez gets many of the best lines and delivers them with precision, but Reinhart owns the film’s best recurring gag. It’s light on its feet as Scafaria and editor Kayla Emter maintain both energy and drive with the characters and narrative. The film moves, and at times — and thanks to some stellar needle drops — you might just find yourself moving with it.
Hustlers is a smart, fun, and terrifically entertaining looks at women sticking it to guys who, while technically victims, undoubtedly deserve what comes their way. These women are victims in some ways too, but more than that they’re also both villains and heroes. The big-screen, and crime films in particular, aren’t always home to such well-rounded female characters, so we should all celebrate the bevy of examples here. Just be sure you keep an eye on your drink throughout the night.