Hollywood has long told stories of women who sell their bodies to the eyes of lustful businessmen flaunting their dollars on their lunch breaks. Until now, those stories have been told almost exclusively by men. Along comes “Hustlers,” a new film from Lorene Scafaria, which tells this story exclusively from the female point of view.
Constance Wu stars as Destiny, a girl who just wants to make enough money to take care of her grandma and maybe buy herself a few nice things. As the story unfolds, we eventually learn some sad details about Destiny’s early years. Otherwise, though, we don’t know much about the circumstances that led her to the world of exotic dancing. We get our introduction to the club through Destiny’s eyes as the new girl learning to navigate the tricky waters of the Manhattan scene where the Wall Street boys open their wallets and the men running the club hold out their hands for a cut.
It isn’t long before Destiny meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the resident star who immediately takes Destiny under her wing—or, rather, her very large fur coat—and teaches her how to use her gifts to make some real cash. Ramona’s onscreen introduction is mesmerizing and Lopez wastes no time reminding the world that she is a star for a reason. If this story were told by men, Ramona would likely flaunt an air of cool aloofness that keeps her at arm’s length from just about everyone. But this story is told by and for women, and so Ramona possesses that unattainable coolness while also playing mentor and role model to the ladies, especially Destiny.
“Hustlers” opens in 2007, which Destiny describes as a very good year. But of course, everything came crashing down in 2008 as Wall Street collapsed. Scafaria masterfully paints the picture of how the financial meltdown affected people dependent on the Goldman Sachs boys. She doesn’t try to glorify the industry, but rather to show that these women were real people who still had bills to pay and very few skills with which to go and find other things to do. This also perfectly captures the way women in the sex trade are so easily dismissed and why it would be easy for them to turn the tables on men who mistakenly assume their own superiority.
Eventually, Ramona has an idea and it takes only a little convincing to bring Destiny on board. They recruit Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to join their scheme and set out to troll for rich men they can lure to the club through dubious and then outright illegal methods. Some of these scenes are downright hilarious and this quartet of hustlers may be clearly in the wrong, but it’s hard not to root for them.
There is a lot to be said for the performances here. Lopez and Wu are the easiest to praise since they are not only the most significant characters and highest profile stars, but they are also just so good. Palmer and Reinhart are praiseworthy too, with very funny moments and brilliant character development. We never get to know a lot about them as individuals, but we do get the sense that they are full and necessary players on this team and the movie wouldn’t be the same without them.
Looking beyond the actors, “Hustlers” is a stunning work of craftsmanship. Todd Banhazl’s cinematography is perfect. Under Scafaria’s direction, Banhazl’s camera never exploits the women or treats them like anything less than people who matter. Likewise, the costume design from Mitchell Travers is certainly appropriate to the ladies’ line of work, but smartly draws the eye to their faces. Unlike the clients in the club, we as an audience are not invited to let our focus linger on their bodies. That makes “Hustlers,” in spite of its inspired-by-a-true-story subject matter, a celebration for women rather than a feast for men.
The genius elements never stop. From perfect music cues—you never knew you needed Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in a movie about strippers—to the big screen return of Mercedes Ruehl, Lorene Scafaria demonstrates confidence in her abilities as a director and we never need to question it.
This is a story that is inspired by real people and that brings us to the one aspect of “Hustlers” that falters just a bit. Destiny narrates her story to a reporter named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), and these moments feel surprisingly conventional for a film so determined to defy expectations. Scafaria presents a set of facts and does so in an entertaining and engaging way, but she doesn’t do enough to take a side either way. Are we supposed to condemn the women when things get really bad? Or are we supposed to cheer them on and ignore our own sense of right and wrong? This refusal to outright praise or castigate makes for a conclusion that feels a bit unsatisfying and empty.
But the journey to get there is worth it. “Hustlers” has plenty to celebrate and is certainly one of the most fun cinematic experiences of the year.
“Hustlers” is distributed by STX Films and is in theaters now.