Filmmaker Lorene Scafaria has made just three feature films over the course of the last seven years, pacing out her nifty dramedies like “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and “The Meddler,” perhaps in hopes that the film world will move past its affection for genre conventions and stop attempting to slot everything into a single box. If Scafaria has a signature, it’s emotional comedy-dramas about good people pushed to crazy ends, a concept she’s approached from both extremes, moving from a literal apocalypse to an overbearing mother.
Considered from that vantage, Scafaria’s third film, “Hustlers,” is a natural fit for her oeuvre, even as its splashy plotline (incorrectly) hints at a wholly different experience. It’s not only Scafaria’s best film, it’s also a welcome twist on the crime thriller genre (if we must apply genre distinctions here) and the ripped-from-the-headlines, can-you-believe-this-is real drama. And, yes, it’s also a film about strippers, but more than that, it’s about women doing the best they can in a broken system. It’s also funny, empowering, sexy, emotional, and a bit scary, with most of those superlatives coming care of a full-force performance from Jennifer Lopez genuinely deserving of awards consideration.
Adapted by Scafaria herself, the film is framed around the creation of the article it’s based on, Jessica Pressler’s viral New York Magazine story titled “The Hustlers at Scores.” All names have been changed — including Pressler’s; Julia Stiles stands in for her as a character named Elizabeth. Some roles have been condensed, but the truth of what Pressler wrote about the nutty, wily crimes of said hustlers hasn’t been altered. Mostly narrated by Destiny (Constance Wu) during the course of a chat with the empathic Elizabeth (a neat twist of narrative plotting), “Hustlers” easily moves back and forth between the past (divided into two segments) and the apparent future, in which Destiny has clearly shed her stripper ways.
What happens in between the present and those two pasts is key, and it all starts in a glitzy strip club in the hard of Manhattan. Destiny’s career path is not working out so well for her when the film opens, all banging Janet Jackson jams and a jittery Destiny doing her damnedest to stand out enough to earn some scratch from the sleazeballs who frequent the club. And then there is Ramona (Lopez), introduced during a brain-meltingly sexy and powerful pole dance in which she gyrates to Fiona Apple (!), makes stripping look like both an art and an athletic pursuit, compels the sleazeballs to unload their wallets, and turns Destiny into an eager-eyed puddle of envy and inspiration.
Lopez owns the film, just like Ramona owns the club, and the fine line Lopez walks between fierce queen and relatable everywoman is essential to the rare balance the film strikes. It’s impossible to imagine another actress giddily showing off her denim swimwear line (named “Swimona”) in her posh Upper East Side apartment with the kind of pathos Lopez strikes, but that’s just the sort of thing the actress does again and again (and better each time) in “Hustlers.”
Destiny (and Scafaria) take their time before getting down to the crimes, and the first half of “Hustlers” operates a bit like a coming-of-age story, with Ramona taking Destiny under her wing and teaching her how to excel in the clubbing, complete with pole-dancing lessons and more than a few tips on how to get the most bang for her “champagne room” buck. Surrounded by the rest of their sistren — a stacked supporting cast that includes Cardi B, Lizzo, Trace Lysette, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, and later Lili Reinhart and Madeline Brewer — Destiny excels, and life is very sweet.
Until it’s not, and the real world intrudes on the unlikely idyll she and Ramona have created. It will not be the last time. Years later, Destiny returns to the club, only to find it — and Ramona — changed. As much a film about Wall Street troubles and the financial crisis of the late aughts as it is about exotic dancers, “Hustlers” soon blossoms into the kind of snappy sendup producer Adam McKay might make, with a deft and definite feminine touch.
The mechanics of the scheme that the reunited Ramona and Destiny eventually cook up are complex, both literally and morally, and Scafaria and her stars aren’t afraid to mine those narrative thickets for entertainment and intellect. Essentially, the gals (and some of their whip-smart pals) go hunting for big game (read: moneyed dudes), drug them up, take them to the club, and charge whatever the hell they want on their credit cards. Half horrifying and half wickedly fun, Ramona and Destiny breathlessly muscle their way through a system that doesn’t care for them, reaping the rewards, and growing less and less recognizable in the process.
Later in the film, Elizabeth tells Destiny that she doesn’t think they did anything wrong — maybe because she believes it, maybe because she wants to soften up a source growing more combative with each interview detail — and Destiny finally seems to snap out of her years-long fog. Wu looks at Stiles with such blazing disbelief that it wounds both of them. “Hustlers” doesn’t offer easier answers than that, instead trusting its audience to draw its own conclusions, believing that they’re smart enough to know the difference between compelling characters and real goodness they may or may not possess.
For all its touchy subjects and ambiguous answers, “Hustlers” is never anything less than energetic, freight-train-fast, and impeccably plotted. Eventually, Destiny shares a persistent nightmare with Elizabeth: she’s riding in a car, and realizes no one is driving, and as she attempts to chuck herself at the steering wheel and the pedals, it’s already too late. Nothing in “Hustlers” feel as out of control as that; instead it’s Scafaria and her ladies, one hand on the wheel, one hand throwing up a blinged-out middle finger to the world that doesn’t value them. No one will make that same mistake with “Hustlers.”
STX Entertainment will release “Hustlers” in theaters on Friday, September 13. The film premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.