A film chock full of strip club scenes might seem like unusual material for a female filmmaker to helm, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria knows that the story of HUSTLERS isn’t about sex any more than a strip club is. Both are about power dynamics. Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article about how a group of savvy Big Apple strippers scammed a bunch of Wall Street wolves out of major bucks, Scafaria brings the material to life as a rollicking caper with heavy feminist overtones. She may overdo some of the sexual politics and underdo some of the characterizations, but it’s never less than earnest and involving, half OCEAN’S ELEVEN and half GOODFELLAS.
Scafaria’s script starts in 2007 with Destiny (Constance Wu) struggling to fit in at the big-time, financial district strip club where she’s just been hired. Having to interact with grabby, drooling pervs in $3,000 suits makes her wince, almost as much as watching her earned cash get swiped by the male club management at the end of a shift. Fortunate for her, Destiny will soon be taught how to keep more money, as well as her dignity intact, when she befriends the veteran performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona is the walking personification of power in such a place, strutting her stuff, earning her dough and keeping it, and keeping a cool head above it all. It's not for nothing that we never see Ramona get wholly naked in the story. She's too big for it, as is the wise Scafaria who refuses to dwell on nudity, even during the dressing room scenes.
Then, in 2008, a lot of the club’s Wall Street customers tank the global economy, and suddenly, everyone has lost their shirts. Soon, the club is all but vacant, bleeding cash, and forcing Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls to try their hands at retail to make ends meet. The story lays it on a little thick too giving Destiny a debt-ridden grandma (Wai Ching Ho) to bail out, and Ramona is revealed to be a single mom with a grade-school daughter (Emma Batiz).
After barely making rent and paying their bills, the two besties cook up a scam where they’ll target some of their previous customers, party with them, slip them Mickey’s, and run up their credit cards while the dupes are half asleep. This works like a charm, earning the women thousands a night, with the men none the wiser or too embarrassed to report that they were out with strippers and couldn't remember all that occurred.
It's a despicable con game, sure, but the movie regards such shenanigans as payback for these greedy shits robbing the populace of their savings, 401K’s, and livelihoods. Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls they soon employ into their grifting are merely leveling the playing field. Plus, most of their marks are cheating on their wives, misogynists, or rolling in dough – often, all three. Indeed, the film makes it all very on-the-nose when Ramona stridently points out that none of the Wall Street hoodlums ever went to jail for their 2008 sins.
Scafaria is a good enough filmmaker, but too often she’ll underline or overdramatize to make her points. If she shows the gals walking in slow motion once to show the weight of their con, she repeats it a dozen times. A lot of her directorial technique owes a lot to Martin Scorsese, what with all the slow-motion, kinetic editing, roving camera, ambitious scale, and blending of all kinds of hit music on the soundtrack. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best they say, but sometimes it borders on a parody of GOODFELLAS in style and substance.
The director does draw sharp and memorable performances out of Wu and Lopez, particularly the latter who gives every scene her all. Lopez is real heart and soul of the piece despite being billed second, and it's her best screen work in eons. Unfortunately, Scafaria doesn’t do a lot with the other characters surrounding them. The men are all one-dimensional, and most of the women don’t have much that defines them either. In fact, the two main co-conspirators present in dozens of scenes seem to be given one singular trait by screenwriter Scafaria. Street-wise Mercedes (Keke Palmer) is sassy, and the nervous Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) throws up continually.
Even the usually terrific Julia Stiles comes up a little short in her role as a one-dimensional reporter earnestly tracking down the story. The scenes where she interviews Destiny are wholly unnecessary, and they drag down the picture. Strangely, these scenes are the only ones where Scafaria shows no visual dazzle. The camera is locked down and placed far too close to both Stiles and Wu as they discuss Destiny’s past transgressions.
Still, even with those shortcomings, it’s nice to have Scafaria handling the material instead of some male director who'd exploit the material. Despite the world of stripping, there’s almost no nudity, no sex, and little time is even spent showcasing the dancers on the pole. What this filmmaker dwells in instead are the emotions of Destiny and Ramona during their tumultuous journey.
At one point, Destiny has to get her daughter to school after a con goes wrong, and the exasperated mother rushes into school wearing her night garb of a mini skirt, thigh-high boots, and over-the-top accessories. The scene could’ve been played for laughs, what with all the other parents dropping their jaws at Destiny's trampy clothes, but Scafaria plays it for genuine pathos.
It’s in moments like this, with its heart on the sleeve, er, tank, that the film is most successful. And in a movie that is all about power - giving it, taking it, and taking it back - these are the scenes that play out most potently.