Hustlers (2019) - Lorene Scafaria
Hustlers is a celebration of feminity, female friendship and a part of society too often overlooked and kept down by the world. Set across different time periods, pre and post the financial crash, we meet Destiny (Constance Wu) and are introduced to her life and the world of strip-club Scores. Wu, despite being obviously beautiful is struggling to find her feet, and make money, in a club filled in Wall Street bankers with more money than sense. Early on we're shown the male management of Scores strip Destiny of her earnings through taking their cut. Its the first in a long series of examples of how the patriarchal society they live in is designed to keep them down and keep the money with the men.
Destiny then meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez who gets one of the greatest character introductions in recent cinema). Destiny is taken under Ramona's wing and shown how to work the system and bend it to her will. These early scenes are reminiscent of the style and confidence of Soderbergh and Scorsese, but rather than feel like imitations, Scafaria lends these scenes a feminity that makes the film feel entirely unique. I found it fascinating for example how none of the strippers ever seem objectified. Scafaria's camera (cinematography by Todd Banhazl) is always positioned from the point of view of Wu, never the men ogling from the sidelines.
Before long, Destiny is earning good money and a friendship with Ramona is flowering. Lopez's demonstration of how to work the pole is one of this year's great scenes and demonstrates just how magnetic and captivating a screen presence she can be. In fact, she commands the screen in every scene she's in and the early buzz about awards season nomination is an understatement for just how powerful a performance Lopez delivers. What truly elevates her performance is she navigates and reveals the vulnerability under her confidence. To those who follow her, she looks like she's got the whole system worked out, but like them, she is as much a victim of circumstance and system designed to keep these women from breaking out of the roles in which they find themselves.
Then everything changes. Life gets in the way and Destiny leaves the club finding herself in a much more difficult and desperate position. Initially what drove her to work in the strip club was to raise money to support her mother and secure her home. Now she has her own issues to contend with as well. The narrative skips forward a few years to after the financial crash. Scores has felt the impact of the crash and is a shadow of its former self. The family and community feel of the strippers has gone, and so have much of the Wall Street bankers, and their money.
When Destiny returns she reconnects with Ramona and the desperation these women find themselves in; unable to find jobs for a lack of experience, or unable to hold down jobs due to obligations their male counterparts just don't have to contemplate - namely being mothers. Absent fathers are a recurring motif in this film where women must play multiple roles in order to just survive, and the support they find in each other creates a real sense of family for each of them.
One of the brilliant effects the film plays on its audience is in how it splits up the narrative structure. We spend the first half of the film with these women, learning about their lives, their dreams, their friendship and the challenges they face. Scafaria's script intentionally works to ensure we are connected with these characters, delaying the inevitable criminality, so that when the con begins we are, initially at least, behind them every step of the way. Some of the films most giddy, fun and hilarious moments occur when Destiny and Ramona plot their scam - essentially meeting rich men in bars, drugging them and then rinsing their credit cards for as much as they can. At one point Destiny asks "What if somebody calls the cops?" to which Ramona responds, "And says what? I spent five thousand dollars at a strip club, send help?". Even the police, when they become involved, can't suppress their laughs. And the film invites its audience to laugh along with the sheer audacity of the women and their con. A pivotal scene halfway through the film, where Ramona lays out the scam to Destiny highlights that the "game" is rigged, and no one who plays by the rules wins. The bankers who used to throw cash at these women, flaunting their wealth are responsible for the crash, and their current predicament. Where films like Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short somewhat celebrated these men who ruined so many lives, here Scafaria wants the audience to celebrate the tenacity and entrepreneurship of these women.
But the film is not, ultimately a celebration of their criminality, and as their scam escalates and begins to unravel, so too does their friendship and the characters begin to question their actions and feel remorse for the lives they are damaging. Hustlers is based on a New York magazine article which forms an effective framing/flashback narrative device for the film. Julia Stiles plays the reporter interviewing Destiny and it's through this rather effective structure that the film enables both the characters and audiences room to contemplate the actions and their implications. At one point Stiles' Elizabeth tells Destiny that she doesn't think she did anything wrong and the moment is allowed to linger as both the characters consider that statement. It also serves to allow the audience to do the same.
The final moments of the film broaden the scope of the story, as the film examines the stresses placed on this friendship, which feels so central to the story and films success, but also how society at large creates the circumstances Destiny and Ramona find themselves in. Unlike in Ocean's Eleven where the brotherhood and loyalty of the men is never questioned, here both Ramona and Destiny have children to consider, and this aspect of their feminity inevitably becomes an unavoidable wedge between their loyalty. Though one of the films most moving scenes demonstrates an understanding between that speaks to a deeper female bond between them.
Ramona's last's line to Elizabeth, 'Look, there’s nothing I can really say to make sense of what went down. But everybody’s hustling. This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You've got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.' In one line this film says more the state of America, what led to the financial crash and the breadth and depth of those affected by it than most other recent films which have the financial crash as their subject matter.
Hustlers is one of the year's best films thanks to a career-defining, and best, performance from Jennifer Lopez, an excellent turn from Constance Wu, a razor-sharp script and smart, compassionate direction from Lorene Scafaria.