Hustlers asks what Goodfellas would look like if it were about women. It rules.

From left to right, Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu are the hustlers of Hustlers. | STXfilms

Hustlers is a neon-soaked, incredibly fun meditation on female friendship.

It’s only appropriate that Hustlers hustles its audience, but in a thoroughly pleasurable fashion.

The new crime caper, based on a true story about a group of strippers who start ripping off their rich clientele through a scheme involving drugs and credit card swipes, is enormous fun, starting with its very first scene. It’s a casually brilliant tracking shot tour of the strip club where Destiny (Constance Wu), as the “new girl,” walks from the dancers’ dressing rooms out onto the floor where men lustily cheer and shower money on her.

But as you’re distracted by all that razzle-dazzle and the movie’s many, many great jokes, Hustlers is quietly composing some deeply profound thoughts about the relationships women build with each other. These ideas percolate in the background of the film and only reach a full boil in its final act. But even there, writer-director Lorene Scafaria prefers a light touch to anything that might overpower the momentum.

The result meshes popcorn sensibilities and personal sentiments in a way that never feels cloying or like it’s trying too hard. Hustlers isn’t a fatuous tale of empowerment; it’s also not ignorant of the sisterhood its characters find in the midst of their sordid deeds.

And so Hustlers cements Wu’s movie stardom and creates maybe the best role Jennifer Lopez has ever had in queen bee stripper Ramona. But the real star of this film might be Scafaria, who offers a glimpse of what a Scorsese-style crime caper would look like if written and directed by a woman.

Hustlers’ final third marks her as the kind of director who’s increasingly rare in American filmmaking and especially in populist American filmmaking: one with overriding thematic concerns they bring from movie to movie and genre to genre.

Hustlers and its director are fascinated by the many ways women’s relationships with each other twist and mutate

A scene from Hustlers in which two of the women walk a suited man into the club.STX Entertainment
Destiny and Ramona bring a very rich man to the club.

Maybe all I needed to see to know Hustlers was going to be one of my favorite movies of the year was Ramona’s introduction. The scene has the delightfully discombobulating sense of being something ostensibly created for the consumption of straight men, while nevertheless evoking a certain “How does she do that?” reverence in women.

Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl film Lopez in semi-silhouette in front of a massive wall of pink-purple polka-dotted light (in a touch I liked, a few of the bulbs are burnt out). She slides up and down the pole throughout her routine as if she’s discovered a gravity-defying cheat code in a video game, and as men throw money onto the stage in appreciation, the camera keeps cutting to Destiny watching in the audience, gradually closing in on her face, her expression caught somewhere between love, admiration, and envy.

Some part of Destiny attaches to Ramona in that moment, and that part will never entirely separate, even as frequent flash-forwards to 2014 (when Destiny is being interviewed by Elizabeth, a journalist played by Julia Stiles who is working on a story about the women’s eventual crimes) show they are no longer in contact. (These flash-forwards feel a little schematic at first, as though Scafaria wasn’t entirely sure how to sustain momentum in her second act without a constant reminder that bad things are coming, but they pay off in a big, big way.)

The entirety of Hustlers is contained in the way Destiny looks at Ramona. Later, Destiny goes up to the club’s roof, where Ramona is sitting and smoking, wrapped in an enormous fur, and the seasoned pro wraps up the inexperienced new girl in her coat, like she’s swaddling a baby or trying to swallow her new friend whole. This is the wonder of a close friendship between two women, in Scafaria’s view. As the movie progresses, Ramona will become Destiny’s best friend, her worst enemy, her sister, her confidante, and her mother. Sometimes, she will be all of those things in the same scene.

Their intricate dynamic puts Hustlers in conversation with Scafaria’s delightful 2015 comedy The Meddler, about a different complicated relationship between a mother and daughter. The Meddler explored all the ways mothers can screw up their children, and all the ways children often realize they’ve screwed up their mothers when it’s almost too late. Ramona and Destiny are each the best and worst thing the other has.

But Ramona’s introduction also sets in motion everything else the film wants to explore, from its interest in the mechanics of selling sex — a later scene will break down just how Ramona seems to ignore gravity — to its razor-sharp dissection of the days leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the way America hollowed out afterward. The crimes these women commit feel scummy and desperate because their country has grown scummy and desperate. To Hustlers’ credit, it almost never says, “See? The real criminals are the guys on Wall Street.” Nobody gets out of this movie clean.

Examining the prosaic, workaday nature of crime has long been the provenance of the mob drama, perhaps never so memorably as in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas. Hustlers asks what a movie like Goodfellas looks like with women at the center of the story (up to and including a very funny cooking montage where Destiny and Ramona try to perfect the drug that will let them knock out fatcats so they can rip those fatcats off). But it also never loses sight of how the schemes these women undertake are just that. They may be desperate, but that doesn’t make anything they do admirable.

When thinking back over Hustlers, it might be easy to conclude that it sets up a bunch of dominos it never lets fall, as in an early montage showing the three different types of Wall Street guys Destiny and Ramona interact with throughout the movie. It definitely contains sequences that made the final cut only because they’re fun, not because they’re necessary to the plot (not that this is a bad thing). But this ignores the way Scafaria and her team position the whole world as a series of transactions, ones you can exploit if you know what to sell. Ramona and Destiny may not have found cheat codes for gravity, but they did discover a way to hack this particular game’s economic model. For a while, at least.

I realize that all sounds headier than Hustlers’ marketing would have you believe, but I assure you this is a tremendously entertaining movie. It’s being sold just a bit as a girl power anthem. But a more accurate way to describe it would be as that sad song from the end of the show, the one where the singer tells you a story about the best friend she used to know and doesn’t talk to anymore, and when the lights come up and you’re filing out of the theater, you think, “Girl, call her.”

Hustlers is now in theaters.

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