Sick of the so-called “Goodfellas formula” where sleazy, ethically-bankrupt scumbags live the high life from exploiting the system before their inevitable downfall?
There’s the inevitable scene set in a neon-lit club where they share a drink and a joke, and maybe impulsively beat someone to death over a past grievance. It’s brutal and male gaze-y, even if critically so.
Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers subverts that by putting focus on the figures not usually seen in crime dramas except maybe in the background of the Bada Bing and putting the power in their well-manicured hands.
Destiny (Constance Wu, compelling and relatable throughout her character arc) – real name: Dorothy – makes a living dancing at Moves, a Manhattan strip joint. Every day she commutes in from the suburbs where she lives with her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho).
The changing room might be a sororal environment under the club’s den mother, Mama (Mercedes Ruehl) but Destiny is barely scraping by. All she wants is a quiet life and to be able to look after the woman who raised her.
Then Destiny encounters Ramona (Jennifer Lopez; brassy, tender, and brilliant). Their eyes meet during Ramona’s routine, impeccably set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and everything changes.
From the instant we see her, she sets about disproving that old Chris Rock joke: on the pole, Ramona is in control. She might be writhing on the floor, but it’s in a pool of money that the audience of anonymous suited men can’t rain down money on her quick enough.
Poledancing, as Ramona showcases it, can be glamorous and dangerous; freeing even. Sharing a further moment up on the roof of the club, Ramona takes Destiny under her fur-coat wing, showing her how to work both on her act and their clientele.
It’s just as Destiny is enjoying her newfound success that the 2008 financial crash arrives. When the money dries up, the rich guys stop coming, forcing Ramona and Destiny to take desperate measures.
Armed with a vial of coke laced with ketamine and MDMA, they plan on showing their former clients a good time then, while they’re passed out, charging their credit cards for all they can. After all, they’re all rich Wall Street, master-of-the-universe types – the very guys, as Ramona indignantly points out, caused the recession.
They can afford the hit, and, besides, it’s not like they’re not having a good time. What are they gonna do – go to the police?
Based on a New York Magazine article, as such movies tend to be, Hustlers presents Romona and Destiny not as inveterate criminals but as decent, ordinary people using their talents and their smarts to get by.
That it generally involves sleazy execs (notably Frank Whaley) passed out in a backroom, ostensibly being given a lap-dance while the girls enjoy champagne at his expense. It’s a victimless crime – or at least one lacking in innocent victims; at least till the caper goes off the rails.
Hustlers works because it’s, at its heart, a story of female friendship, of the supportive bond between women on the up and up: Destiny and Ramona, Mercedes (Kiki Palmer), who’s paying for her incarcerated boyfriend’s legal defense, and the youngest among them, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who’s prone to vomiting in times of stress.
It’s funny and empowering, toying with the old cliches of the genre – as in a Christmas get-together, the rewards of crime stacked neatly beneath a tree, the season of giving after all that taking, set to Franki Valli’s “Rag Doll”.
All of which goes to disprove that oldest cliche, about need a man to get you a fur coat. Men here, in fact, are relegated to marks, deadbeat execs, or unsympathetic bosses. It’s even a woman being wasted (specifically Julia Stiles) in the role of the journalist, Elizabeth, who’s interviewing of Destiny in the film’s bookends allows for a natural voiceover.
Cinematographer Todd Banhazl makes the most the club lighting – the whole film seems to be suffused in shades of pastel, usually pink – while the eclectic, empowering soundtrack score runs from sprightly classical piano to Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Lorde.
Away from the paunchy New York sociopaths and endless parade of golden oldies that have hitherto defined the genre – more of that in the upcoming The Irishman crime caper has rarely looked or sounded so good.