Director – Lorene Scafaria
Cast – Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles
Based on a 2015 article published in The Cut, the same online magazine that became famous in India for launching an unprovoked attack on our beloved Priyanka Chopra, Hustlers tells a story about actual scam artists. Unlike Priyanka, whose biggest crime was being famous or something, the ladies here duped hundreds of wealthy men and robbed them of thousands of dollars during the worst economic recession in decades.
We’re meant to admire them.
To be asked to make a moral leap such as this isn’t uncommon. For Hustlers to be even remotely successful, it must first get you on its side — more precisely, it must convince you to root for its characters, most of whom are criminals. But if people can aspire to be Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) and admire Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street), then why can’t they cheer for women who could probably con the both of them in their sleep?
Hustlers is a tremendously entertaining film, but it is also deceptively deep, with singles of wisdom slipped under its glittery g-strings. It wonderfully combines the best aspects of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Steven Soderbergh’s runaway 2012 hit, Magic Mike.
As much of an escapist fantasy as it is, it is also a cautionary tale; about greed, excess, and the frequently flimsy excuses people make to justify amoral acts. Essentially told in flashback, Hustlers chronicles a modern day Robin Hood story of a few strippers, who, according to The Cut, ‘stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves’.
Our surrogate in this seedy world is Dorothy (Constance Wu), a single mother who during a particularly difficult time in her life is forced to become a stripper to support her grandmother and young daughter. At a New York club, she is introduced to Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who is somewhat of a legend in the those circles. Word around the club is that she can take home thousands of dollars every night.
This image released by STXfilms shows Jennifer Lopez, left, and Constance Wu in a scene from Hustlers.
The self-sustaining ecosystem that Hustlers explores reminded me of the segment in the non-fiction book Maximum City, in which author Suketu Mehta investigated the lives of Mumbai’s dance bar girls. Both the film and the book share an empathetic tone that we don’t often see in stories such as this. The profession, as we must understand, isn’t entirely victimless, and as insensitive as it would be to treat these characters without respect, it would be just as tone-deaf to celebrate their newly acquired wealth.
“On a good night,” Mehta wrote in Maximum City, “a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in New York does.”
The trick, as both Dorothy and Maximum City’s Monalisa learn very early in their careers, is to play the long con. The idea is to develop relationships with vulnerable chumps, to make them feel desired, loved, in control — emotions that they probably haven’t experienced in a while. And in return, they’ll buy you cars; put you through school; pay the rent for your expensive apartment.
But then, the 2008 recession hits, and all of a sudden, the money dries up. Dorothy is suddenly back in square one; with little cash and even fewer options. And that is when Ramona comes up with a plan. She rounds up a bunch of the girls, and with Dorothy as her number two, they set about drugging unsuspecting dudes and maxing out their credit cards. When the guys wake up the next morning and realise they’ve been taken for a ride, what are they going to do? “Call the cops and say ‘I spent $5000 at a strip club, send help?’”
Ramona justifies the scam by giving a lecture that she appears to believe in: these guys robbed the entire country, sent the global economy spiralling out of control, and not one of them went to jail. It’s iffy reasoning, but not nearly as nonsensical as some of the stuff we saw in the recent, and very similar film, The Kitchen.
This image released by STXfilms shows, from left, Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in a scene from Hustlers.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers, like its feisty heroines, reveals more emotional layers as the superficial ones are stripped off. She constructs her movie in a way that might feel slightly jarring at first — the temporal shifts are sudden, and significant — but over time, the techniques begin to take thematic relevance. By refusing to disclose every detail about these characters’ lives, Scafaria protects their dignity.
And dignified would be a good way to describe the performances, particularly those of Constance Wu, who was so charming in Crazy Rich Asians, and Jennifer Lopez, who hasn’t been given a role this meaty in many years. She brings such a unique mix of vulnerability and bravado to Ramona, particularly in the closing few minutes of the film, which had more emotion and wisdom than I was prepared for.
At a time when both our economy and our morality seem to have hit a dangerous low, Hustlers is the movie of the moment.