Heist films are an underutilized genre, partly because — much like heists themselves — they are tricky to pull off. For every “Ocean’s Eleven,” there is an “Ocean’s Twelve.” When they pull it off, the crew becomes legends to the audience. When they don’t? Well, at least George Clooney is usually there to bring in the ticket sales.
Even rarer still is the female-led heist film — if there even is a woman on the team, she is never the brains or brawn. Usually, she is relegated to the role of sex object and almost always serves as the love interest for the heist’s ringleader. But what if there was a heist where the women were both the brains and the brawn, where they used being sex objects to their advantage? And also, the heist does not revolve around an overly complicated scheme at the Met Gala?
Director Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” answers these questions with a spectacular film about capitalism, female friendship and lots of fur. Scafaria’s sophomore directorial effort after the lukewarm “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Hustlers” revolves around a New York Magazine article about the true story of strippers conning clients out of thousands of dollars. Mostly told through an interview between co-ringleader Destiny (Constance Wu) and the New Yorker journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), “Hustlers” is an entertaining, and surprisingly poignant, film about modern day Robin Hoods who are just trying to even out the scoreboard.
Crafted by the unflappable Ramona (the ever-magnetic Jennifer Lopez), the film’s central con is simple: Ramona and her crew of former strippers go to bars and “fish” for rich men, flirting with them and taking them to the club. At the club, they get the men incredibly drunk (and eventually sedated by drugs) and very willing to drop thousands of dollars. In the morning, nothing but their credit card statement shows they had a great time. The web gets more tangled, and all good cons must come to an end, but “Hustlers” allows us to enjoy the journey.
Heist films never really side with the victim, and “Hustlers” is no exception. Despite being based off of real events, the film never makes much of an effort to villainize the hustlers or sympathize with these Wall Street bankers losing their money, because, let’s face it, it can be very hard to sympathize with Wall Street bankers. Rather, the movie grounds itself in its exploration of where these women come from, seemingly attempting to make the audience upset at the systematic injustice more than anything. Because everything is seen through the lens of Destiny’s interview, the audience easily understands the hustlers’ drive for survival in the concrete jungle and almost roots for them to give the wealthy what they think they deserve.
At the core of the story is the intense friendship that develops between Destiny and Ramona — two women with no one but each other to rely on. The familial love that develops between them is the driving force of the film and the foundation of the close sisterhood the original crew builds. Under an analytical lens, “Hustlers” could be seen as a romantic film, following Destiny as she has a meet-cute with Ramona and examining how her life changes (for better or worse) after meeting her. “Hustlers” keeps going even after the heist is over, ending on a note about the duo’s relationship and cementing that the film, while revolving around the con, is really about the love between the two women.
There are many ways that “Hustlers” can be considered a trailblazer — not only does it subvert the classic heist genre, it also humanizes strippers in a way the media rarely does and celebrates body diversity. It also has trans actress Trace Lysette in a blockbuster film, which in 2019 is still considered revolutionary. “Oscar buzz” may be too optimistic a term, even for Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but “Hustlers” is still a bonafide hit that is guaranteed to entertain.
Julie Lim covers film. Contact her at [email protected].