Hustlers is not what you might think it is. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, the film pushes past the glitz and seduction just enough to be a genuinely interesting film about female friendship. This isn't Showgirls or Striptease. Hustlers wants women to shine. It treats the fact that they are strippers as an extension of their strength and control over their power.
And the women in the film do shine, particularly Jennifer Lopez. Lopez's career has been a rough one. Only a handful of films have truly capitalized on her screen presence, Out of Sight being the best until Hustlers. In Scafaria's hands, Lopez is intelligent, sexy and electrifying as Romana, a queen who rules over a New York strip club. Her introduction, a feat of physicality in a rhinestone bodysuit, is jaw-dropping. Lopez took months to train to pull off the acrobatic dance.
Ramona takes Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing early on. Destiny struggles initially to adapt to the club but is a quick study. In an early tracking shot, she roams a labyrinth of libidos hoping someone wants a dance. Ramona sees an opportunity for them and soon they begin conning wealthy clients out of thousands of dollars. Then the 2008 financial crash happens and the club loses all of its big spenders. This leads Ramona and Destiny to begin taking more extreme methods to con men, namely drugging them before escorting them to the club to spend their savings.
Hustlers often recalls Goodfellas. The clever tracking shots, narration and rise and fall plot structure are certainly pulled from Scorsese's masterpiece. The film has its own style and intention behind it though. This isn't just "female Goodfellas." More than one scene makes a point to have women express their lack of a need for a man. The main characters are never seen sleeping around or relying on a boyfriend or father-figure. It is refreshing to see a film that upholds female friendship above relationships.
Constance Wu is a stand out performance as well. She is given so much more to do here than in Crazy Rich Asians. She sells Destiny's journey from being unsure and tepid to being a boss and fully in control of her sexual power. The supporting cast is also very good including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Cardi B.
Scafaria's direction is clear-eyed. She never makes the men that get hustled complete monsters nor does she discredit the collateral damage the women cause. The film sides with its leads and gets the audience to as well by positioning the financial collapse as the backdrop. There is something genuinely satisfying watching the guys who may have caused the crash get taken for ride.
Hustlers ends up being effecting thanks to the central performances and their friendship. Scarfaria sprinkles in deft touches throughout that help to elevate the film. For example, she knows that having Lopez play a character who uses her physical attributes to gain power has an extra layer to it since Lopez has been mocked and reduced by her own physical attributes. This knowing layer is just one of the elements that make Hustlers interesting. When it isn't entertaining the hell out of you, it has something on its mind.