You pray to the movie gods, and sometimes they listen. I remember emerging from Crazy Rich Asians this time last year in a state of despair at seeing Constance Wu - an actress blessed with something close to the best comic timing in the business, if her participation in TV's marvellous Fresh Off The Boat was anything to go on - obliged by Hollywood to play a blandly aspirational heroine with nothing especially funny to say for herself. This weekend's true-crime drama Hustlers, a tart and unexpectedly substantial morality play from the writer-director Lorene Scafaria, arrives as genuine reassurance. As a struggling stripper known professionally as Destiny, Wu doesn't get material quite as sharp as her day job has habitually generated, but she's been handed an appreciably complex character who wrestles with her own choices; she's not just here for decoration, and there's no sense her talents are being wasted. As the early buzz suggests, Wu isn't the headline story here, however: that would be the return of Jennifer Lopez in the role of Ramona, imperious queen of the stripclub jungle. "Step inside my furs," purrs Ramona to Destiny as the two share a smoke on the roof of their downtown Manhattan establishment - it's the movie's spider/fly moment, yet you can't help but notice how well these two very different women tessellate. The bond forged in this moment is the basis of the scam documented in Jessica Pressler's 2015 New York magazine article "The Hustlers at Scores": how Ramona and Destiny, plus various thong-clad associates, doped a run of suits emerging from nearby financial hubs so as to relieve them of vast amounts of disposable income. Call it a penis tax, and you could probably pitch it to certain Democratic presidential candidates.
What grabs you first about Scafaria's film isn't the people, but the place. Hustlers is properly engaged with the inner workings of a medium-rent strip joint - as engaged, say, as Martin Scorsese was with the inner workings of the Vegas casino in 1995's Casino. Though this 15-rated film demonstrates some of the American mainstream's usual coyness around nudity - doubly odd in and around an environment where nudity is de rigueur - it absolutely nails the absurd tackiness of the girls' workplace: a space where grown women are forced into ridiculous costumes and poses, to the strains of Britney's worst song ("Gimme More", in case you were wondering), so as to fulfil the stunted fantasies of men with more money than sense. There's not a surface to be seen that hasn't been touched by one form of naffness or another. Ramona, notionally the wise elder of the troupe, has a tattoo on her left shoulder that looks like a bad case of necrotising fasciitis; the whole movie, indeed, merits an award for Best Worst Make-Up. The funniest line, laced with bathetic irony, follows from the sight of a visiting Usher and his entourage showing the girls with champagne and dollar bills. Destiny, narrating these events, dreamily trills "For one last time, everything was glamorous and cool", and we're struck by what a weird, lowly idea of glamour this is, even with the actual Usher gamely popping by to make it rain. Hustlers comes out of a school of feminism that recognises a stripper's life is pretty grim even before the market fluctuations that leave them vulnerable to doing an awful lot more for a whole lot less money. What Destiny's memories amount to is this: we saw worse men than Usher.
The scam central to the film gives these girls self-worth and a sense they're not alone in their plight - Hustlers is, among other things, a poppy unionisation fable - but the Scorsese comparisons that have trailed the movie since its premiere stem from Scafaria's ambivalence around her protagonists: she's not fully behind them. You could easily imagine a version of Hustlers that unspooled like a distaff Magic Mike: some uncritical celebration of sisterhood and girl power that would allow its doping divas to whoop and holler and sashay off into the sunset, leaving a trail of spent, pathetic men in their wake. The Hustlers on release is not that movie. True, Scafaria dresses her leads up, lavishes them with close-ups and lays out the circumstances that drove their characters to crime, but she never fully endorses their actions, and that distance allows a measure of useful ambiguity to hover around the narrative. It's embedded in the framing device, where we find Destiny being interviewed several years later by an unsmiling Pressler-surrogate journalist (Julia Stiles), who cuts her subject's feelgood montages short with such probing prompts as "So, getting back to the drugging...". The distance between these two women - the college-educated professional and the single mother taking desperate measures to drag herself up - is an oddly haunting note to inject into what's been positioned as the season's foremost campy-vampish party movie; it's a rare framing device to make a point as well as cue up exposition.
Elsewhere, Hustlers yields the connoisseurial pleasures of watching a film proceed in stacked heels along the contours of so much male-authored, male-centred crime drama. The scam stalls when Ramona recruits a junior employee - an Elisha Cook Jr. in lipstick - whom the circumspect could see is a jittery liability; cinephiles will note how the marked contrast in temperament between the essentially sensible Destiny - who does what she does to keep a roof over her ailing grandmother's head - and the fearless-bordering-on-reckless Ramona isn't all that far removed from that separating Johnny Boy and Charlie in Mean Streets. Though she curates a soundtrack that leaps dynamically from Scott Walker to Janet Jackson (and juxtaposes Big Sean's immortal "Dance (A$$)" with a lot of Chopin), Scafaria's filmmaking isn't quite as freewheeling and distinctive as Scorsese's has been allowed to be: she works the slo-mo settings as Ramona does the pole, but there isn't a single shot in the movie that will lose much in the eventual inflight version. And I wonder whether one of the reasons it got greenlit and given the push it's so far received is not specifically that it's about women, but that it's about money, a subject the suits more readily understand. Yet whatever the reasoning, a door was opened here, and something worthwhile has emerged: an atypically smart multiplex option, in which a promising director gets to do a workable stars-in-her-eyes impersonation of one of the great American filmmakers, while a terrific ensemble act admirably tough and salty. What's not to like?
Hustlers is now playing in cinemas nationwide.