Lorene Scafaria drenches her recession-era crime dramedy in neon, bills, and deep intention.
Their lives start out as repackaged goods. They’re oversaturated in a club where strings of lights floss through the walls. The pinks and purples lack rhythm, and the disco balls shine with about as much show as a candy wrapper. It’s pleather, not leather; plastic, not skin, and as the camera bumps and grinds with her characters, any sort of content is incidental. A shoulder here, a graze against on the elbow there, and if you’re lucky, some eye contact for more than a few seconds.
When it comes to fetish, Hustlers gets off the most on wondering who’ll touch a bill next. Cotton and linen cast over Lorene Scafaria’s film until idée fixes become business as usual. It doesn’t take long for Destiny (Constance Wu) to learn this, either: upon entering her own Oz of a strip club, she watches in awe as Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) dances for the crowd. Another 30 seconds later and she’s bathing in cash. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” she asks. Destiny’s eyes glaze over as if to say, “Sure, why not?”
They strike up a sisterhood as 2007 turns to ‘08, but once the recession hits, no one has time for pleasure. The club gets emptier and the camera gets closer. Selling oneself is now the same as selling one’s body, and maybe if the players can use the game to their advantage, their lives can feel less ersatz. How about something glossier? What about the lives only seen in a Macy’s catalogue? The real dream, though, is payback. Is it a particularly novel idea? No, but it is ripe with intention, and Scafaria has the style and attention to further the plot.
It’s a prime conceit at first glance: a stranger-than-fiction story based on Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores.” As 2008 turns to 2011, the two women come up with a plan to embezzle their clients’ money, bringing in more dancers (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Madeline Brewer) to help. You know the type—the archetypal, walk-in-through-the-backdoor guys who damaged the economy beyond repair. The only thing is that they got bailed out.
And that word is especially important in Hustlers: “they.” “They stole from everybody,” Ramona crones. “You see what they did to this country?” she asks. It’s fascinating in how Scafaria plays with the idea of the Other, the dehumanization that stems from class warfare. The women’s clients are largely interchangeable. This isn’t the story of the rich white men. It’s the story of those in a place where their only actions are to react, to reciprocate.
Desensitization is the name of the game here, with Scafaria getting as close to the edge before introducing a new character or shift in point-of-view. Most of the time it’s successful. She plays the audience and, aside from pacing issues, makes for an experience that’s fun because it toys with the morality informing our protagonists and the amorality surrounding them. As Hustlers progresses, it introduces more and more characters, each getting a law of diminishing returns in how Destiny and Ramona—and how we—see them.
This isn’t the story of the rich white men. It’s the story of those in a place where their only actions are to react, to reciprocate.
It’s quite a daring script, making for a complementary piece to other films of the decade. I thought a lot about Sofia Coppola’s more recent works, namely The Bling Ring, in how Scafaria synthesizes pop culture into its own subgenre of reality. Nothing in either film exists without a greater ambition, and yet both reach an apex because they’re just on the edge of reality. Scafaria points to a similar rhythm in how she chases her own high until it dulls itself into a denouement, too.
It’s a beating heart with the threat of ennui in the rearview mirror, a press of pop staples at the turn of the decade. But while its more animated filmmaking will bring about more obvious comparisons (such as Scorsese and Altman), the director is much more involved in how these women endure the economic and cultural mores prescribed to them. For every needle drop that plays as a joke is a stretch of silence, and for each carousel of dollies and reverse shots is a moment of static.
It’s actually quite empathetic, and that’s largely thanks to Wu and Lopez. The two find their characters’ creases, seeing their hypocrisies without damning them. However, the leaps in time can prove too much for the writer/director to keep up with, and later themes regarding gender and victimization are rushed. It could have played better with a longer cut. At 110 minutes, Hustlers plays it a bit too safe and tight. Add another 15 minutes and it really could have found its flow.