Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart
Throughout Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was watching the “better half” – the other side – of the male buddy movie. Take Hangover for instance: Four men ingest a drug that wipes out their memory of a wild bachelor night. The thing about the male-bonding movie is that it looks silly if it isn’t a comedy. We’re so ineloquent at expressing ourselves that sentimentality is forced to acquire the language of farcical humour. Women often become the punchline: One of the Hangover dudes even ‘mistakenly’ marries a naive stripper. Hustlers, in lyrical contrast, is about four strippers who fleece rich clients by wiping out their memory with systematic drugging. Most of the men here are horny Wall Street weasels who, the women assure each other, deserve to be exploited in this extreme manner.
It is serious business – both literally and figuratively – and yet this 2008-financial-crisis cautionary tale (The Big Short director Adam McKay is one of the producers) channels the stylized form of a female buddy movie. It’s surprisingly funny and frenetic and furious, almost as if Scafaria were deliberately making a Scarfaceian anti-comedy that says: Boys, the joke is on you. The credit-card swipe followed by a ka-ching! is a recurring image. A costlier swipe is the one aimed at the tonal flimsiness of their male counterparts: The youngest girl has a vomiting problem – she barfs every time they set up a naive new guy. (Will Ferrell is one of the producers). Even the eclectic soundtrack – dozens of pretty “money” montages are scored to Britney Spears and Usher and Sean Kingston and Lorde – feels like a play on the accessibility of this genre. The camera, too, moves as if it were perpetually capturing neon-lit seediness. There’s also a grammar to some of the shot-taking. For example, the protagonist is introduced in the first shot, a dreamy long take that follows her from the changing room onto the stage, as if she were an artist excited about her first performance. But it is soon revealed that she is just an exotic dancer, and once she enters the club room, the spell is broken; casual jump-cuts then begin to define her daily routine.
Unlike the crass eye-for-an-eye-ness of a Bridesmaids or a Girls Trip, or the superficial sexiness of an Ocean’s 8, Hustlers is deceptively profound…both as a girl-gang drama and a con-artist indie. It’s not just the showy depth of its lines. (“Motherhood is a mental illness,” one single mother tells another, hoping that her crimes might provide a better future for her daughter). There is also the usual character template – the wily veteran (Jennifer Lopez, as Ramona) takes the dewy-eyed newbie (the evocative Constance Wu, as Dorothy) under her wings. We’ve seen it all before: egos clash, mistakes are made, fallouts happen. But there’s a genuine sense of sisterhood belying the pattern. Dorothy, in 2014, is narrating this 2008-2013 story to a journalist (Julia Stiles). From the way she reacts to the writer, you can sense that Dorothy, too, is a prisoner of familiar storytelling templates: She repeatedly expects the journalist to confirm that Ramona is the calculative destroyer (“She knew exactly what she had to do”) who took everyone for a ride. That’s the narrative she is conditioned to believe from years of rags-to-riches-to-rags classics. That’s the narrative she needs to hear so that she feels better about herself.
Jennifer Lopez’s performance is in fact designed to keep us guessing: Is Ramona a vixen or a wonder woman? Given that she has been a hugely successful pop star, it’s no surprise that Lopez’s two career-best turns have come as a singer (Selena) and a dancer (Hustlers). Notice the little details she infuses into Ramona. She holds and smokes her cigarettes in a certain way, sucking on the stick aggressively and briskly: a habit that suggests that Ramona might have grown up poor, because of how every puff is taken to be optimized.
I suppose a lot of the mentor-protege subversion comes down to Hustlers’ real-life roots. For a film based on a viral article (Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine piece), maybe it’s no coincidence that the central relationship invokes the essence of a more recent viral article. Natalie Beach’s lovely millennialist essay in The Cut describes the writer’s life-altering – and increasingly toxic – friendship with a popular Instagram influencer called Caroline Calloway, whose online image she helped build until she felt exploited by Calloway’s callous ways. Beach’s tone sways between resentful and regretful. The last line of the introductory paragraph reads: “It seems obvious now, the way the story would end, but when I first met Caroline Calloway, all I saw was the beginning of something extraordinary”.
You can almost hear Dorothy begin with these words to the journalist. What’s remarkable is that ever since the essay got out, Calloway, a digital hustler of sorts, has been expressing great admiration for her bitter friend – much of which looks opportunistic and tailored – on her Instagram account. She has been posting old photos and being unnaturally gracious about the whole thing, as if to hint that it’s perhaps Natalie who is a bit delusional. Hustlers’ biggest triumph lies in how it ceases to matter who the Caroline of the story is and who the Natalie. At times, it counts on the possibility that we can’t tell one from the other. After all, if motherhood is a mental illness, friendship is a viral infection.