Hustlers is a Bustling Caper

Hustlers continues a long, modern tradition of combining Scorsese-lite fun with the perils of social inequity. From Scorsese’s own Wolf of Wall Street to Adam McKay’s Big Short, or even I, Tonya, filmmaker Lorene Scafaria is borrowing from the greats and it shows. It’s no surprise that Adam McKay (along with Will Ferrell) is a producer here, his affinity for one-percenter screeds well known at this point.

Proving herself more than a rom-com or sitcom queen, Constance Wu is Sadie, a down-on-her-luck stripper who finds a home at Moves when the older, wiser, snappier Ramona takes the girl under her wing and teaches her how to get it from the Wall Street yuppies that stumble through their happenin’ New York City strip club. Lopez is all sultry moves and movie star charisma, her Ramona by turns motherly and manipulative. The best part of her is her daughter, and so she prowls the clubs and back alleys of Manhattan looking for stray women to welcome into her cadre of ladies-in-arms. Their weapons are their bodies, their mission is their babies, to care for them by any means necessary. When the economy tanks in 2008, a struggling Sadie reconnects with her surrogate mommy Ramona and together they lead the charge in taking advantage of the unlucky wealthy SOBs still flowing through Moves. This is a film about the working class out for green against the silver spoon class.

Hustlers is also a revenge film of sorts, where our lead character eventually learns the moral, emotional consequences of vengeance. They’re getting theirs from the assholes who screwed over everyone in America, but there’s an inevitable price when they steal from a guy undeserving of such unpleasantness. He’s a guy with a mortgage and a family, not some rich nozzle with a boner to pick. It’s all very predictable and reminiscent of previous films of its ilk. No matter, because Scafaria is on fire, imbuing the endless montage and sisterhood frivolity with the sort of musical and formal energy these movies thrive on. The soundtrack is on point, with songs like Usher’s “Love in This Club” or Lorde’s “Royals” notating a specific year and allowing nostalgia to wash over anyone who fondly remembers the mid 2000’s or early 2010’s. The former highlights the peak of pre-recession Moves, glowing and flowing with customers and literal showers of lovely Benjamins. The latter denotes the fall of the empire, the moment everything finally crashes around them.

While Hustlers often feels like you’re watching people have fun rather than experiencing that fun with the characters, Wu and Lopez command the screen along with singers Cardi B and Lizzo in memorable cameos. They prop up a plot that occasionally drags in the middle, typical of rise-and-fall narratives. Cam’s Madeline Brewer, as well as Lili Reinhart (Riverdale) and Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) make up the rest of the gang. Julia Stiles shows up as a journalist interviewing Sadie many years later, taking stock of her falling out with the other girls. Once everything comes full circle, Scafaria’s script comes alive again and so does our empathy. Too often the audience is kept at a distance throughout, never learning much about Ramona or Sadie until the chips are down and it’s difficult to care. Wu and Lopez make us care as their makeshift mother-daughter relationship becomes quite affecting in the final stretch, despite many reasons to hate one or the other or both.

The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it’s not shy about its influences, and that’s okay. Lorena Scafaria has greatly improved from the days of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. She gives a crooks vs. hooks caper like Hustlers the style and verve needed to overcome comparisons and stand on its own as a good example of this new sub-genre: the post-recession drama.

Grade: B+

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