Lizzi Sandell on Lorene Scafaria’s ‘Hustlers’ (2019)
Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu) from 2007 to 2015, from the height of her stripping career through her subsequent criminal activity and the eventual fallout that leaves her narrowly avoiding prison-time and attracting the glare of New York City’s media. At its heart, the film is a story of the complicated, unparalleled friendship that develops between Destiny and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), expert stripper and partner-in-crime, as they strive to become financially independent in a post-2008 world where opportunities are increasingly scarce.
Destiny and Ramona’s friendship starts in glamorous innocence; they become close during a period in which dancing for New York’s wealthiest men is profitable, their journey reaching its joyful apex one night when Usher unexpectedly visits the club and showers them with money. When the economy crashes, strip clubs find themselves lacking in patrons and occupied by young Russian dancers who are willing to give $300 blow-jobs in the Champagne Room. Refusing to either follow suit or return to relative poverty, Ramona and Destiny hatch a plan to lure their remaining wealthy clients back to the club, and, after spiking their drinks with a combination of MDMA and ketamine, charge exorbitant sums to their credit cards. The following morning, or so the logic goes, the men are too implicated or embarrassed to report the money missing.
The film is lovingly directed by Lorene Scafaria under Gloria Sanchez Productions’ Jessica Elbaum. A sister of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s recently defunct Gary Sanchez Productions, Gloria has already made its mark with alt teen movie Booksmart (2019) and acclaimed black-comedy series Dead to Me (2019). Hustlers is another female-centric feather in its cap, proving to be a perfect storm of scammer intrigue, intelligent casting, and sensitive treatment of real-life material. In buttery close-ups and soft-focus, Scafaria creates a world in which female friendship and sapphic energy create an impenetrable force-field of feminine intimacy.
It might seem redundant to mention that Hustlers is a film about performance, but stripping is revealed to be multi-layered: pole-dancing itself requires skill and strength, and the wooing of men provides further interpersonal challenges. Part of Ramona’s superior talent is her ability to read the desires of her clients and foster lucrative relationships, and Jennifer Lopez’s portrayal is revelatory, a far cry from the era of Maid in Manhattan (2002) when her acting was treated by the press as an awkward adjunct to her musical career. She is now even generating Oscar buzz.
When Ramona first appears on-stage, she looks astounding. The dance routine, which Lopez learnt for the film over a number of months, is physically demanding and her body is Goddess-like in almost no clothing. The men are anonymous, practically silhouetted in a black mass around the stage, showering Ramona with a theatrical quantity of dollar bills. As I watched her back-lit by a wall of bright stage bulbs, I was reminded of other performance-based films, notoriously Showgirls (1995) and Burlesque (2010), that attempted to create similar moments less successfully: ones that marry spectacle and characterisation in a perfect musical number. Through a combination of Scafaria’s passionate direction and Lopez’s prowess, this one is entirely convincing.
Deconstructing the routine afterwards for Destiny to learn, the film gets to its emotional root. Despite Hustlers’ wildly successful promotional campaign making use of upbeat “Money” by Cardi B (who is herself an ex-stripper and has a successful cameo in the film), much of the soundtrack is delightfully unexpected. Here, Chopin’s piano emphasises the balletic elegance of Ramona’s movements, and there is minimal, naturalistic dialogue between the two women. An easy intimacy is established, as well as the gentle dynamic of tutor and tutee. It is an utterly expert sequence in terms of emotional economy.
Hustlers is a surprisingly charming film based on a considerably less charming and more factual article in The Cut by Jessica Pressler. Usually a stickler for source material, in this instance I lamented having to imagine Destiny and Ramona’s real-life counterparts as having anything other than the fierce, transcendent friendship depicted in the film. Scafaria did an exceptional job extracting the warmth and humanity from the story, adopting an almost over-empathetic view of its criminal, capitalistic events.
What enables this empathy is context. The importance of the Financial Crisis is difficult to overstate, both for creating ghost towns of the New York City strip clubs and then providing a moral incentive to take down, Robin Hood-style, the Wall Street bankers who continued to prosper. In the interim between stripping and scamming, we see Destiny interviewing for a retail job and being shunned for not having experience. Meanwhile Ramona, while working for Old Navy under a jobsworth manager, is unable to take Friday afternoons off to pick up her daughter from school or afford someone to do it for her.
Both Ramona and Destiny are single mothers with incomplete educations and minimal family support. Their options limited, they build a matriarchy on the backs of wealthy men. In her interview with the fictional Pressler, Elizabeth (Julie Stiles), Ramona makes the parallel explicit: “This whole city… this whole world is a strip club.” That may be so, and the characters hardly created the social conditions that predicate the film’s events. But creating an equivalence between the female protagonists and the scourge that is America’s ultra-wealthy elite can still feel thorny at times. The film, however, never loses sight of the difference, which is of course a matter of gender, opportunity, and which side of the pole you’re on.
Hustlers is showing in UK cinemas now.