Over the last few years an unexpected trend has suddenly seemed to hit Hollywood. A group of decent crime films that are mainly notable for the fact that they primarily star women. For so long films about crime and criminals have been more or less dominated by men, and for whatever reason the last few years things have started to flip. By and large, the films are pretty standard, usually not breaking the mold other than in the casting choices, and feeling fairly similar to other films, for better or for worse. Ocean’s Eight just aped the style of the previous Ocean’s movies, just with an all female cast, and it ended up being just kind of fine, falling too deeply into the trap of being a little too pandering, becoming a heist movie for women, down to them stealing jewelry. Widows was a much more interesting film, essentially feeling like a Michael Mann movie and featuring some of the best performances of 2018. I didn’t bother to check out the Hustle, the remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but by all accounts I didn’t miss much. And the Kitchen certainly was a film I saw this year and felt nothing towards. So, by and large, this new trend in crime films hasn’t been overly successful, other than Widows, but there’s still something very fresh about these movies, so I keep giving them a shot, hoping to find another one that hits the mark. And, thankfully, we have another film that can represent the better side of this trend, thanks to Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which is an absolute delight.
Hustlers is largely framed around an interview, where a woman named Dorothy is regaling a reporter with her life story, her career as a stripper in New York, and the criminal empire that she helped run and which eventually got her arrested. It all began with Dorothy getting a job as a fledgling stripper in a New York club that primarily catered to Wall Street brokers. She was struggling to make enough money to take care of her beloved grandmother, and ended up befriending the club’s most successful and popular stripper, Ramona. Ramona agrees to take Dorothy under her wing, and Dorothy ends up quickly climbing the ladder at the club, while also falling into an almost parental relationship with Ramona, making up for the mother she never knew. The two become good friends, and live on top of the world, until Dorothy eventually leaves the life behind when she and her boyfriend end up having a daughter, which just so happens to coincide with the 2008 financial crises, which largely dried up the previously huge customer base of Wall Street crooks. Dorothy spends two years trying to raise her daughter alone, struggling to find a life, until she finally decides to go back to the club and get her job back, reuniting with Ramona.
However, she then learns that Ramona has changed her methods. She’d always been quite good at convincing men in the club to give her money, but she’s devised a new way to get as much money as possible. She drugs the Wall Street guys, and gets them to spend as all the money their credit cards will allow, getting her own cut from the club. And, with Dorothy’s help, this new method really takes off. They end up setting up a whole enterprise, getting in league with some other women and operating the scam on an industrial scale, fleecing the Wall Street brokers for as much as they can. But, it doesn’t end up being enough. Ramona becomes too greedy, and starts changing the formula, cutting the club out and attempting to get even bigger fishes, which eventually leads to disastrous results, and attention from the law. A series of men who were robbed this way finally start talking to the police, and after quite a bit of incredulity, they actually start investigating, and end up uncovering the web of crimes that Ramona and her girls have been committing, finally resulting in them all getting arrested. Dorothy managed to plea out of the charges, and has spent several years trying to put the past behind her, until this interview brought everything back up, including her love for Ramona, even after everything that has happened to the both of them.
When I first saw trailers for this movie, I didn’t think much of it. It looked kind of silly, and not really like something I’d be overly interested in, even though the idea that it was based on a true story of some women who stuck it to Wall Street guys around the financial crisis was pretty fantastic. But, then I started to hear just about every critic I follow gush about how great it was, specifically Jennifer Lopez’s performance, and kind of instantly became intrigued. And I’m really glad that I gave it a shot, because I ended up really enjoying this film. I’ve seen some people dismiss the movie as just aping Martin Scorsese’s style, specifically Goodfellas, but people have been making stories about the rise and fall of a criminal forever, and I can forgive any perceived derivative storytelling if the actual film is well-made, and that certainly applies to this movie. It features a lot of fun criminals, played by incredibly charismatic actresses, living large and losing it all while shot lavishly and lovingly, including several great tracking shots that helped lull you into this world full of fake glamour while hiding the seedy underbelly as well as it can. And, I love those types of movies! Everyone in this film is putting in terrific performances, balancing between comedy and drama as their ridiculous scams are rising and falling. But, as most people have said, the real star of the show is Jennifer Lopez, putting in a performance that makes me confident that she’d be an incredible cult leader, just oozing charisma and making you fully understand why so many women fell under her spell and did whatever she asked, even as they became more and more depraved. Hustlers is just an incredibly fun film, and one that actually has some pretty great film-making holding it all up. I’ve never heard of Lorene Scafaria before, but I definitely will be keeping an eye on her from now on, because if she can make a movie this fun I have to assume she’s going to have a hell of a career.
And it’s that direction that I think really made this film what it was. Because, strangely, most of the films that I brought up at the beginning of this article have still been made by men. Which, isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when you’re dealing with a film like this, that focuses of strippers and sex workers and which features quite a bit of female nudity, it certainly becomes less likely that things will be handled in a tasteful manner if helmed by a man. This film easily could have been simple titillation, something like Showgirls, but instead we get a film that tells a story in a largely male-dominated genre, from a woman’s point of view which lets the female characters remain empowered without just using them for sex appeal. Which isn’t to say that it’s a prudish movie or anything, it features quite a bit of sexiness, showing why these women succeeded at scamming these men, but it’s done in a way that you just rarely see from Hollywood films, probably because it’s all being handled by a female director. We get to see strong, independent, and sexy women getting one over on a bunch of moronic men, who are almost entirely portrayed as grunting animals, and it’s kind of a miracle. It’s probably going to result in this film being written off as a “chick flick,” deeming it less than because it’s catering more to female tastes than male, but I found it to be a breath of fresh air specifically because it wasn’t like the types of movies I see men make. It was something different, and I’m hoping it will lead to more movies like it.
Hustlers was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and released by STXfilms, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk