Buddy-crime films are a stacked genre, but with the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Thelma and Louise”, there are few that are centered on women, and even less that could pass the Bechdel test (i.e., can two female characters talk about something other than men?). Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” is a gritty, visually sumptuous and excellently performed tonic for the lack of female-led narratives in both the crime genre and all of Hollywood.
Inspired by the true story of a team of strippers who robbed their male customers blind, “Hustlers” is about Destiny (Constance Wu), a woman who just wants to financially support her grandmother and live an independent life. She’s the new girl at a popular New York strip club, a seedy but glamorous place with rich scumbags as the majority clientele. To get more attention from customers, Destiny asks veteran performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) to teach her some pole-dancing tricks, and from here the two become best friends and, eventually, partners in crime.
Lorene Scafaria (director of 2012’s apocalyptic dark comedy, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) shows the inner workings of the club business with Martin Scorsese-esque aplomb by having Destiny narrate what it was like to be young and beautiful but also utterly helpless in a financially oppressive society. The luscious cinematography by Todd Banhazl glides through the joyous backstage comradery, framing the happy-go-lucky experts (among them Cardi B and Lizzo) with a sense of security and Destiny with a clumsy, nervous tilt. Destiny explains how after the 2008 economic breakdown, strippers were treated worse than ever before; anybody with stripping as a past career couldn’t get a better job, and the creepy-but-perpetually-tipping Wall Street guys were replaced with cheap, manipulative frat-boys.
After a harrowing scene of humiliation, Destiny joins forces with Ramona, Annabelle (a decent but one-note Lili Reinhart), and Mercedes (a hilarious Keke Palmer) to distract pawing men while taking thousands of dollars from them in one-go. Destiny isn’t initially on board with the idea because it’s risky as hell, but she’s seduced by Ramona’s reasoning: when men feel victimized by a woman, they aren’t eager to admit it, especially not to the police.
Scafaria acknowledges that what the characters are doing is not only wrong, but also seriously screwed up and sometimes violent. The viewer realizes Ramona isn’t as nurturing and kind as she initially seemed when she figures out that a gentle application of ketamine into somebody’s drink can render them oblivious to straight-up pickpocketing. The most involving scenes of the film show Ramona’s operation going haywire; the viewer is caught in a hectic trance, torn between wanting the characters caught and seeing them escape.
As a guide through a between-the-cracks world of modern crime, Constance Wu’s performance is wholly sympathetic in its inevitable damnation: the nostalgic-yet-melancholy structure of the film gives all of her moments of long-deserved triumph an air of impending doom.
As the leader and mastermind, Jennifer Lopez is spectacular. This is undoubtedly her best performance to date. She can alternate between genuine sensitivity and street-smart survival instinct in the blink of an eye. She gives Ramona an aggressive, powerful life beyond what we’re seeing; she wants to live a life that society would never give her if she went through honest channels. Just from her expressions the audience gets a sense that she’s been through enough abuse in her life to have an innate distrust of not only men, but America itself. She is one of 2019’s best characters.
“Hustlers” is one cool, tense, darkly funny ride, getting the job done in every way it sets out to. J-Lo sports one of the year’s most engrossing performances, and while the entire production isn’t something that’s likely to garner awards-season buzz, “Hustlers” is still a wicked good use of any filmgoer’s time.