Hustlers Takes Gangster Movies All the Way to the Strip Club

It’s probably a cliché at this point to describe Hustlers as Goodfellas-with-strippers. But if the stiletto fits…

Aping Goodfellas – and Scorsese’s gangster oeuvre, generally – isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard to make a film that encapsulates the failure of the American dream through a specific (and relentlessly entertaining) portrait of criminality without nodding Marty’s way at least a little bit. But Joker has shown recently that owing too much of a debt to Scorsese can be a liability when you don’t have anything original to say. Thankfully, Hustlers not only serves as a raucously entertaining riff on gangster tropes – it also has its own perspective, carefully twisting and inverting the mobster formula into something far more than homage.

Granted, the film takes a little while to find its feet. That’s fitting, given its first act revolves around Dorothy – stripper name Destiny, played by Constance Wu, awkwardly navigating her stretch as the ‘new girl’ at Moves, a New York strip club. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, flaunting the fruits born of the best personal trainers and plastic surgeons money can buy), a veteran stripper with a plethora of well-off Wall Street admirers. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria convincingly crafts the hermetically-sealed neverland inside the strip club (with only occasional glimpses outside), but isn’t quite as successful creating a consistent tone.

The first act – featuring appearances from the likes of Lizzo, Cardi B and Trace Lysette – seems torn between revelling in the club’s hedonism and recoiling from its seedier aspects. That ambivalence is presumably intentional – we soon learn the story is being told by a perspective of an older Dorothy, years later – but it’s undermined by Scafaria’s reluctance to really lean into the grottiness. A montage of ‘top-level’ Wall Street guys sneaking in via the back entrance and never having to worry about the consequences of their actions is theoretically chilling, but when the worst of these actions is a sleazy dude tossing scrunched up singles at strippers, the intended darkness blanches before the light. The film feels much more at ease depicting the fun of the strip club, as when Usher – playing himself – makes an appearance and the girls all rush to the stage to greet him.

When Hustlers takes its second act outside the club, though, the film really moves into another gear. After a brief stint away from stripping – courtesy of the 2008 GFC, a bad boyfriend and an adorable baby – Dorothy becomes Destiny again. But Moves is not the sanctuary it once was, with friendly faces replaced by stony-faced Russian strippers who charge for three hundred bucks for covert blowjobs in the champagne room. Then Ramona sweeps in, resplendent as ever, and Dorothy is ushered into the inner circle of a profitable scheme that soon takes a larcenous turn.

As the screenplay explains in scintillating detail, Dorothy, Ramona and a small crew (initially just Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, though their roster soon expands) find wealthy, impressionable gents and talk them into a strip club sojourn – earning themselves a previously-organised percentage of the cut. Initially it’s deceptive but above the board, but the incorporation of spiked drinks into the scenario increases both the credit card charges and the potential for criminal consequences.

This section of the film – thickly populated with thrilling montages of the ladies earning and spending their substantial profits – is Hustlers at its most entertaining. But it’s here that the comparison to Goodfellas bears fruit. In that film (and Wolf of Wall Street) Scorsese weaponises the sheer joy of hedonism, forcing his audience to revel in the spoils of his characters’ misdeeds even as we know we should be judging them. While Scafaria has fun with the film – and don’t get me wrong, Hustlers is frequently fun and funny – it’s never as raucously enjoyable as the gangster films it’s emulating. The trick is that this isn’t a bug; it’s by design.

You see, Ramona and Dorothy never boast the kind of power or success that Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort could. Sure, they’re raking in the dough, and we’re treated to more than a few conspicuous displays of their ill-gotten gains. But their gender – and specifically, the sexualised, objectified nature of their scam – means that their power always feels tentative. There’s always a sense of danger that colours the joy inherent in their criminality, a vulnerability that undercuts the power fantasy. It’s not emphasised, but Scafaria cleverly weaves it through the film’s energetic second act, never allowing us to forget that women’s version of hyper-capitalism involves indulging male fantasies rather than female ones. (In case it’s not obvious by now, this is a film that well-and-truly benefits from having a woman at the helm.)

While narratively the film’s third act is the traditional ‘fall’ arc of a rise-fall gangster narrative, it doesn’t so much feel like a burst balloon as the gradual release of air from a balloon that was always deflating. Scafaria uses a host of formal innovations, particularly in regards to the sound design, to ensure that the law catching up with the girls’ increasingly outrageous antics is as entertaining as the antics themselves. Across the film, I particularly love how the soundtrack energises proceedings. It’s never subtle – think Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” to introduce Ramona, a Frankie Valli needle drop right after he’s brought up in conversation, and plenty of lyrics explicitly linked to events on screen – but this is a film with no need for subtlety.

Hustlers isn’t perfect. You can’t quite praise its feminist bona fides, particularly when it makes a point of turning an addict’s erratic behaviour into a punchline. Not so intersectional…but maybe it doesn’t matter. Equally, it’s clear from early on that this is whole thing is yet another metaphor for the failure of the American dream; we probably could’ve done without the final line shoving that in the audience’s faces. Again, though, subtlety isn’t exactly what they’re going for here.

What keeps Hustlers afloat through all this is a strong emotional core, centred on the relationship between Ramona and Dorothy. Both Lopez and Wu do sterling work building up complete characters, warts ‘n’ all, over the course of the film, and the complexities of their interactions is what makes them feel real even in such an oversized narrative. They’re supportive and jealous, loving and bitter, conflicted and close: perfectly embodying all the contradictions of female friendship that are so often smoothed over into one dimensional attributes in mainstream movies. You might buy your ticket for the stripper crime comedy – and you won’t be disappointed – but the real selling point is the film’s interrogation of friendship tested to its limits. One of 2019’s best movies.

4 stars

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