Generally speaking, cinephiles love onscreen gangsters. As the writer-director of the gangsteresque dramedy Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria, recently told the New York Times, “we can name 1,000 of those characters by their first and last names. We’ve enjoyed them.” Indeed, Hustlers feels akin to the crime films of both Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice). This movie too is zingy, surreal, and wildly entertaining. The key difference between it and the many great films that depict men doing horrible things for understandable reasons—love, money, power—is that Hustlers asks, why not women?
Inspired by a real-life crime spree and a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler that examined the ringleaders behind it, Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu): a novice in stripping who gets wise to the culture in Manhattan during the flashy mid-aughts. Newly employed at a club flush with Wall Street bros and cash in 2007, Destiny meets her mentor, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), in a sequence that merits an updated definition of “legendary.” In the reflexive way that embattled women often recognize and embrace each other, Ramona envelops Destiny in her chinchilla coat and teaches her the tricks of their trade—all of which boil down to how to best keep a man wanting and thus spending more.
Then the Great Recession hits, and many of the men who caused it vacate the clubs into which they’d once poured their ill-gotten gains. The financial crisis dovetails with Destiny becoming pregnant by a deadbeat boyfriend, retreating to Queens, and struggling to support her beloved grandmother and baby daughter with little more than a GED. In 2010, Destiny returns to the hollowed-out club of her heyday and to her friendship with Ramona, who has fresh recruits (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart) and a new plan. To expedite their usual process of teasing money out of corporate suits, the quartet resorts to “fishing” for men, spiking their drinks with a blend of ketamine and MDMA, and maxing out their credit cards. “It’s stolen money,” Ramona tells Destiny, referring to their top clientele’s robbing of millions of people of their livelihoods. Why not steal it back?
The viewer’s proxy for this bonkers scheme is a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), who interviews Destiny and Ramona individually in 2015. When Destiny starts waxing nostalgic about happier times, Elizabeth cuts in with, “Let’s get back to the drugging.” Her eyes widen at the audacity and absurdity of it all. When Destiny offers her a cup of tea, she hesitates before sipping. These comical cues feel necessary, but also a bit grating. Getting viewers to like male characters who kill people, sans apologia, has never been difficult, but persuading them to like female characters who hurt men is an altogether different beast. Hustlers chips away at that weird double standard, but stops short of obliterating it. The piling on of consequences grows thick in the end, eliciting viewers’ sympathy for a contrite and seemingly reformed Destiny above all. Yet the first half of the film is more effective in generating empathy. We get to know and like these women before their actions turn rotten—and even then, their motivations are clear.
Hustlers‘ opening shot tracks Destiny from the dressing room through the strip club on her first night of work to Janet Jackson’s “Control,” which sets up the gaze through which the audience will view the narrative while revealing the protagonist’s primary goal: Destiny wants to hold the reins of her own life. As she tells Ramona, who also is a single mom to a young daughter, “I don’t want to rely on anyone for anything.” Theirs is a platonic love affair, as Destiny’s dreams ignite as she observes Ramona’s fierce independence and entrepreneurial streak.
“When did things start to get out of control?” Elizabeth asks Destiny. “Ramona was always in control,” Destiny replies. When these two are together, the men in the room tend to fuzz at the edges. “We are hurricanes,” Ramona whispers in Destiny’s ear. The men in their path are collateral damage. So when the women’s world spins from dollar-drenched dreaminess into a no-hands-on-the-wheels nightmare, Destiny is at first too high in the whirlwind of their creation to register the change.
If they’d been born into better circumstances, if their lives had taken other turns, or if society functioned differently, these women might be working on Wall Street. Instead they start at the bottom of the strip club hierarchy, with club managers, security, and DJs taking deep cuts from their nightly earnings. But Ramona sees the scoreboard from above. Everyone is hustling, to varying degrees of success. “This whole country is a strip club,” she says to Elizabeth in her interview. “You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” Ramona’s mix of mama-bear cuddliness and long-sighted, feline ferocity cements her place on film history’s list of notable heavies. Her opening quip to Destiny, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” encapsulates her worldview. Her code is capitalist to the extreme: Get money for yourself and your loved ones in this screwed-up world, and screw anyone who gets in your way.
Hustlers, it must be said, is hustle incarnate. The film’s editor, production designer, the majority of the cast, and three of its executive producers are women (the other two are McKay and Will Ferrell). Scafaria, originally hired as Hustlers‘ screenwriter, had to convince her higher-ups that she, rather than Scorsese or McKay, should direct the picture. As producer Jessica Elbaum told the entertainment site Vulture in an oral history of the film’s production, “We were prepping by February, we made the movie in March, we wrapped it in May, and the movie’s coming out in September, which is insane.” Crazier still is how the 29-day shoot and rush to theaters shows not at all in the movie itself. Impeccably acted, plotted, paced, researched, and composed, Hustlers is an immersive thrill ride through every lush and period-conscious frame.
On top of that, Scafaria avoids both romanticizing the strip-club scene and exoticizing the profession of her diverse ensemble. She shows the strippers’ friendships and fights, base injustices and heightened coups, and how getting by looks different depending on where you stand. Rapper Cardi B—a former stripper herself—who appears in a crowd-pleasing cameo, has said that Hustlers matches many facets of her own experience. “I recommend every stripper to see it,” she said of the film in an Instagram post. “Especially if you are a New York stripper—like, you definitely will relate.” As a woman who hasn’t climbed a pole for money but has had to dance in other ways (haven’t we all?), I found myself relating too. v