With her new film, Hustlers, writer-director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) wants to take you back to a simpler time in American history. The year was 2007, a new show called Keeping Up with the Kardashians had just begun to air, Usher ruled the radio, low-rise jeans were still very much a thing, chunky highlights were the height of cool, and oh yeah, Wall Street guys were living the dream in New York City, splashing out serious cash on strippers and blow on the eve of an impending economic collapse. Working at a Manhattan gentlemen’s club was easy money for scrappy women like Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) … until it wasn’t.
Once the financial crisis hit, the same men who would regularly drop $15,000 in a single night for lap dances, private shows, and a little bit of company suddenly found other ways to occupy their evenings. Performers who chose to stay in the industry at that point were forced to accept lower rates, more degrading work, and even less protection. For most of the women we meet early on in Hustlers, these concessions made the whole thing not worth the trouble; their profitable little enclave of female camaraderie and support splinters as they go their separate ways about a third of the way through the film. (Sorry, Lizzo and Cardi B. fans — both women deliver memorable performances, but they’re more or less cameos.)
The heart of the film is the friendship between Destiny (the novice) and Ramona (the seasoned pro), and as with last year’s phenomenal Support the Girls, it’s refreshing to see a setup where women in the workplace are happy to help one another out — even if Scafaria’s script kind of glosses over how or why Ramona is so willing to teach Destiny the tricks of the trade. Lopez in particular delivers one of the strongest performances of her career here, digging into her own Bronx roots to flesh out a character who could easily seem one-note in other hands. It’s easy to see why Destiny is so drawn toward Ramona when the women reconnect in 2011 after losing touch for a few years; in many ways, Ramona is like the mother Destiny never had.
It also helps that Ramona has a plan she wants to bring Destiny in on. By this point (and I’ll admit it takes the script a bit too long to get there), Ramona is the ringleader of a scheme to draw wealthy married men into Manhattan strip clubs, drug them, and then rack up major charges on their credit cards. The filmmakers are explicit in setting this scam up as an act of class warfare: If these same wealthy men could rob America blind and more or less get away with it, why shouldn’t these women from working-class backgrounds be entitled to a cut? It’s a bit heavy-handed and over-explained, but it works. (You won’t be surprised to see in the credits that Adam McKay — director of The Big Short — was an executive producer on this.)
So yes, there’s plenty of hustle on display in Hustlers — unfortunately, there isn’t nearly as much flow. Part of that is due to the film’s insistence on telling the story through a series of clumsily employed framing devices and relying heavily on voice-over narration. Julia Stiles (always a welcome presence) plays the reporter who’s interviewing the scammers for an upcoming long-form piece, and much of the narrative unfolds through her conversations with Destiny. The jumps in timeline don’t always feel cohesive, there are so many side characters to keep track of, and there are more than a handful of plot points that are brought up and later abandoned without resolution. In the end, while there’s plenty of talent on display in Hustlers, it feels like all those loose dollar bills being thrown around just don’t quite add up the way they should.