It’s exotic dancers vs. Wall Street sharks in Hustlers, a flashy crime drama with a great ensemble cast but a somewhat predictable story that could have dug a bit deeper.
Inspired heavily by crime capers like Goodfellas and Ocean’s Eleven, it delights in showing us the intricacies of the scam at the heart of the story while also hanging some bittersweet personal notes on the main players’ relationships. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria funnels her Scorsese and Soderbergh influences into something that might feel a bit too familiar to fans of the genre but should be a breezy diversion for those looking for a fun girls’ night out.
Based on a 2015 New York magazine article, Hustlers stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a Queens native who cycles through a variety of odd jobs until she lands a spot at the popular strip club Moves. It is there that she meets veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who quickly takes her under her wing and shows her the ropes (perhaps “poles” is more apt). Things are going well at Moves, until the 2008 financial crisis quickly puts the brakes on the money train and Destiny finds herself unable to support her newborn daughter.
Desperate to stay afloat in the brutal economy, Ramona hatches a scheme with a pair of other protégées to drug wealthy Wall Street executives, drag them to the club, and run up their credit cards against their knowledge.
As Janet Jackson tells us in song during the film’s opening line, “this is a story about control” and the film’s Robin Hood-esque tale of the disenfranchised stealing from one-percenters resonates even a decade after the markets crashed. It may be difficult for some to empathize with these criminals, even given how greedy and vile their victims are portrayed to be, but what is more disappointing is that Scafaria doesn’t seem to imbue the film with much moral ambiguity. We follow the scammers each step of the way, confident that they’re in the right because of their downtrodden circumstances, but it’s more difficult to square when they begin showering each other with expensive gifts from their ill-gotten gains.
The biggest reason it’s easy to track with these women, despite their dirty deeds, is that the performances are honest and open-hearted across the board. Wu has loads of charisma as a character who starts from an innocent enough place but is slowly seduced by the extravagant possibilities of Ramona’s machinations. Lopez is even better as the cool and confident culprit who asserts her dominance early on with a jaw-dropping dance set to Fiona Apple’s ’90s hit “Criminal” and never lets up.
Scafaria leans on a framing device that ping-pongs the narrative back and forth between 2008 and 2014, which tends to spell things out a bit too much and doesn’t raise the stakes as much as it should. Besides that, the editing by Kayla Emter is first-rate and gives the film flair and style between every cut. One edit, marrying a scene from 2008 in which Destiny hopes her newborn is male with a smash cut to 2011 showcasing her newborn daughter, is both hilarious and devastating at the same time.
Hustlers is a whirlwind of a heist movie that likely won’t linger long in the mind afterwards but is nevertheless enjoyable in the fleeting moment.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, tells a new origin story for the Batman supervillain as a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City.
Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, is a sci-fi drama based partially on a true story about an astronaut who begins to lose her connection with reality after returning from a length space mission.
Pain & Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, is the latest project from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar about a fictional film director who reflects on the choices that he’s made in his life.