Tag: lorene scafaria

How Hustlers Danced Away With America’s Heart—And Box Office

Perhaps the greatest thing about Hustlers is the number of ways it finds to surprise. Yes, Lorene Scafaria’s movie about a pack of scamming strippers led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu hits all the expected beats: a pole dance from J. Lo here, a sensuous shower of dollar bills there. But its greatest delights are the moments that defy what audiences are taught to expect from films like these—and from female characters more generally. In fact, one of those delightful tricks happens early on, when Wu’s green dancer character, Destiny, climbs up to the roof of her new place of work to smoke a cigarette and finds Lopez’s intimidatingly talented Ramona already up there, luxuriating in an impossibly voluminous fur coat. Given the competitive environment Destiny has already found inside the club, it’s easy to assume Ramona will give this newbie the cold shoulder—or at least size her up for a moment. Instead she pulls Destiny into the billowy warmth of her coat, wrapping her arms around her in a Madonna-like shot so serene that its warmth almost radiates from the screen.

Hustlers just wrapped up a fantastic weekend at the box office, where it grossed $33.2 million across 3,250 North American theaters. Given the film’s concept—a group of strippers scamming and drugging corrupt Wall Street moguls just after the 2008 recession—it can be easy to see its success as foretold. But that would underrate its artistry. Hollywood has squandered many a genius concept and “sure thing,” and for many a reason. Casting miscalculations, unfocused writing, bad editing… the list of reasons Hustlers could have failed is nearly infinite. Instead every detail of its execution is a triumph. More important, however, is how Hustlers also satisfies a number of cravings that the entertainment industry has been slow to quench—including diverse casting, a subtle and deeply American understanding of money and class, and a distinct examination of female antiheroes.

There’s something distinctly satisfying about watching Lopez and her merry band of scammers do their thing. Hustlers does indeed feature a diverse cast—but more crucially, the women in this group gel seamlessly, and each role feels tailor-made for the person occupying it, from Lopez as a character as underestimated as she has been throughout her acting career (though Hustlers may put an end to that) to Wu, just a few months removed from a Twitter scandal, as a woman with something to prove. Each of these women represents a different kind of female antihero, female Walter Whites who are doing it all for their families…but also, they’re really, really good at it. It’s not often we see a gaggle of female antiheroes traveling as a group and supporting one another as the Hustlers do. Their compassion for one another is almost enough to make you wonder what makes them “anti”heroes—for a moment, until you remember that they make their living drugging people and stealing large sums of money.

These are characters who have spent their lives on the fringes of society, and chose to build a support system all their own, one that includes the families they already have. Ramona frequently beams over her daughter, affectionately describing motherhood as a “mental illness,” while Destiny has an inseparable bond with her grandmother, who gets some of the film’s most unexpected punch lines. What these women seem to find in one another—and in the crimes they commit—is safety. In one of the film’s warmest scenes, all of these women and their various family members gather for Christmas morning, opening lavish presents but also reveling in one another’s company. Yes, Destiny squeals with glee over the chinchilla fur Ramona buys her—a status symbol that also represents just how far Destiny has come. But she seems even more emotional when she sees her grandmother seamlessly blend in with her friends, effectively transforming what was once a small, isolated family unit into one part of a larger supportive whole. Don Draper could never.

The shared communion these women find in one another might be unorthodox; indeed, it literally exists outside the law. But the genius of Hustlers is the number of ways it finds to challenge its audience to think of a better, more legal place its antiheroes could have looked for such connection and stability. Just look at Destiny’s initial struggle to find a job post-recession, as a potential manager scoffs at her GED and previous job experience. In many ways one gets the sense that Destiny is alienated not only from the job market, but from “polite” society as a whole. The film does not judge Destiny’s behavior. Instead it allows her and her friends to express different viewpoints on the untenable situations in which they find themselves. And it seems like no mistake that for all the love she has for Ramona, Destiny can never quite pinpoint exactly how she feels about the criminal outfit they once ran after it comes crashing down. Instead the only thing that’s achingly clear is how much she misses Ramona. Because for all the materialistic euphoria this film contains, its one true love story is between these two women—and it was clear from that first embrace under Ramona’s fur.