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‘Hustlers’ Is an Essential, Timely American Crime Story

Lorene Scafaria’s new film—which follows strippers who resort to a criminal scheme during the 2008 financial crisis—adds something new to the scammer genre by turning traditional pawns into well-rounded subjects

STXfilms/Ringer illustration

There’s a line from Hustlers that Jennifer Lopez has lifted and repurposed for the movie’s media tour, an appropriate bit of thievery. In the movie (and now in real life), Lopez’s character, Ramona, (and now Lopez herself) divides the world into two kinds of people, the haves and the have-nots, using the lingo of her workplace. “It’s all a strip club,” Lopez told the Associated Press during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Hustlers premiered. “You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” You can see why Lopez zoned in on this particular quote as a sound bite—it’s succinct, witty, and cynical, doubling as a thesis statement as well as a quip.

Hustlers focuses on people sick of doing the dance. Destiny (Constance Wu), a lonely waitress from Queens, befriends Ramona, the charismatic and reigning dancer at a Manhattan strip club. At first, the pair are mostly content to rise and grind for Wall Street bros. It’s tiring, often thankless work, but they also enjoy the boisterous nights with their fellow dancer pals (played by, among others, Cardi B and Lizzo) and, in one effervescent scene, the occasional dollar-throwing celebrity. After the 2008 financial crisis hits, though, money stops flowing into the club as easily, and Destiny struggles as a single mother and the caretaker of her elderly grandmother. And so a scheme is devised to keep Destiny and Ramona’s rents paid, dependents safe, and bags designer. Along with Keke Palmer’s Mercedes and Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle, the women begin slipping their clients a homemade concoction of memory-erasing ketamine and MDMA and then running up their credit cards once the men enter a blissful blackout, scoring fortunes small and large as their marks sleep it off. Their bet: When they came to, the men might be convinced that they’d spent the money, and would definitely be too embarrassed to call the cops. As with all rise-and-fall flicks, the scam works until it doesn’t. Penthouses, friendships, and freedom are won and lost.

Lopez’s first scene in the film, a striptease to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” is a spectacle of sleazy glamour in which she so thoroughly establishes herself as the club’s magnetic queen bee that I was half-surprised that people in my theater weren’t reaching for their wallets to toss $20s at the screen. (She deserved it!) Lopez’s performance in this sequence is deliberately titillating and intimate in a way that showcases the tricky tonal balancing act director Lorene Scafaria pulls off in creating a raunchy strip club flick where the dancers are its subjects rather than its objects. The striptease is a show designed for horny men, yes—and it is flamboyantly, titanically sexy—but Hustlers instead zooms in on the effect it has on Destiny. She sees the power Ramona commands by moving through a world built to please men, and she is moved by that power, drawn to Ramona’s grasp on her surroundings. “Ramona, when she steps onstage, is a bit like a fighter stepping into the ring,” Scafaria tells The Ringer, noting that she drew inspiration from films like The Wrestler and Raging Bull when imagining the character. For all the seediness that follows, Ramona is in her glory as she twirls around the pole, precise and momentarily perfect, and Scafaria makes the moment feel like a feat of athleticism. “It feels like a fighter movie,” she says. “They’re blue collar. They’re using their bodies until they can’t use their bodies to make money anymore, and I wanted to make those connections.”

Like Martin Scorsese’s crime sagas Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, Hustlers is based on a true story, and it works well as a companion piece to those films. There’s the outsider sucked into the glitzy, gleeful lifestyle crime can provide; there’s the sense of family that outlaw circles can provide for lost souls; there are the scenes of giddy, narcotic debauchery, as well as the third-act paranoia and panic that infect people stunned by their own mistakes.

Scafaria adapted the screenplay from “The Hustlers at Scores,” an article by New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler, and the film is faithful to the events as Pressler describes them, although it adds a fictional journalist (Julia Stiles) as a framing device. (And therein lies another similarity with Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street: The main character explaining the grift from conception to collapse in voice-over.) Hustlers doesn’t breeze past the gravity of the wrongdoing; the drugging episodes are queasy and panicked. “There’s a true crime here, and there are real victims here, and I wanted to stay truthful to what happened,” Scafaria says. But the film doesn’t cast judgment on its characters so much as the worldview that they’ve bought into and the rigged financial realities they have to navigate. Hustlers doesn’t ask the audience to root for them, necessarily, but it wants us to understand them. “This is a movie about gender as it relates to the economy, and how women function in capitalism,” Scafaria continues. Like Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s fizzy male-stripper opus, Hustlers can be wildly fun and a celebration of flesh-baring performances. But where Mike gyrates his way out of the club, the women of Hustlers find themselves increasingly cornered; they have no special talent for crafting furniture, but they do have mouths to feed, dismal employment prospects in the retail sector, and stigma to contend with for participating in the skin industry.

Ramona and Destiny are materialistic, and fetishize luxury goods as totems of self-worth, buying each other outrageously expensive gifts as ways to show their love. “There’s no such thing as too big a bag,” Ramona tells Destiny after they shop for a stupid-big early-aughts Louis Vuitton piece. On two occasions, the pair bond through pricey furs. Their mania for labels recalls another cinematic outlaw group willing to steal from the rich to stay in Louboutins. Even more so than any Scorsese film or classic caper, Hustlers is a spiritual companion piece to Sofia Coppola’s underrated 2013 movie The Bling Ring, which follows a lightly fictionalized version of a real-life gang of teenage burglars who targeted the rich and famous. “I want to rob,” Emma Watson’s blithely immoral Valley girl whines. Just like Destiny and Ramona, the California criminals have bought into a corrosive value system where how you get something matters far less than the fact that you have it.

In both films, the criminally minded friend circles are undone by their insistence that bling is their entitlement; however, Hustlers has more sympathy for its subjects, who occupy a much lower and more precarious economic rung than their younger, whiter, richer Coppola counterparts.

While The Bling Ring has contempt for its fame-worshipping trespassers, Hustlers cannot bear to sneer at its characters. Even when Ramona trots out her all-denim swimwear line, “Swimona,” the misguided attempt to go straight serves primarily as evidence of how hard it is for her to carve out a career for herself; her gaudy taste is a class marker, not a character defect. And while most of The Bling Ring’s narcissistic robbers are selfish friends of convenience—Israel Broussard’s Marc is the lone exception, the one who really longs for friends—the women in Hustlers truly care for one another, in spite of all that transpires between them and their own flaws.

Hustlers takes place in the very recent past, and it’s a film arriving at exactly the right time. It’s been Grifter Season for, somehow, years. People cannot get enough stories about con artists, from Fyre Festival’s fratty villain Billy McFarland, the subject of two simultaneously released documentaries, to Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, who was already the subject of an HBO documentary after she defrauded doctors, patients, and investors across America by pretending to invent a better blood-testing system, and who is likely to receive even more attention when she goes on trial in 2020. (In “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” from her book Trick Mirror, the writer Jia Tolentino calls the 2008 financial crisis “the event that arguably kick-started the millennial-era understanding that the quickest way to win is to scam.”) Jessica Pressler’s most famous tale of female friendship and criminal scamming isn’t even necessarily “The Hustlers at Scores” anymore; in 2018, she wrote an equally gripping story about Anna Delvey, a fake Russian heiress who conned her way into the downtown art scene and wound up in jail. (Shonda Rhimes is writing a series based on Pressler’s account for Netflix.) This week, an essay from a woman who used to ghostwrite captions for a marginally famous Instagram influencer became a briefly inescapable topic of conversation for media types—a troubling sign that, at this point, even boring scams can go viral.

Into this fray breezes Hustlers, not quite celebrating its own set of scammers but refusing to condemn them, a crime movie tightly fit for the moment.