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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Hustlers’ more serious than you might think

Dan Webster

On a week when most adult viewers will be going to see the "Downton Abbey" movie, I decided to review "Hustlers," a film that many of those same viewers might have misjudged. I wrote the review for Spokane Public Radio:

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis occurred, people have been pointing fingers at who was responsible.

The characters in Lorene Scafaria’s film “Hustlers” offer up a simple target: men. Specifically, the kind of money men – stock brokers, venture capitalists, etc., – who love to throw thousands of dollars at women working in strip clubs.

Written and directed by Scafaria, “Hustlers” is based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler. Taking the basic story, which involved a group of women who sought out rich guys, drugged them and then maxed out their credit cards – and who ultimately got caught, prosecuted and punished – Scafaria merged identities to create characters played most prominently by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.

Wu, the star of last year’s romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” plays Destiny, a single woman from a hard-scrabble background who works as an exotic dancer. Struggling to make enough money both to pay her rent and to provide for her grandmother, Destiny finds a way out when she meets Lopez’s Ramona.

Strikingly beautiful, but more important aggressively sexy, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, showing her how to spot the richest marks, the best way to woo them and the most effective ways to get at their credit-card accounts. And pretty soon, Destiny is making more money than she’d ever imagined.

But then comes 2008 and just that quickly, the money dries up. Destiny finds herself struggling once again, as does – we discover – Ramona. But Ramona, at least, has a plan. Returning to the clubs this time, they decide the best way to get at the newly available money is to use drugs to more easily manipulate the men. And that’s the point at which the women evolve from being those who merely target the perverse and/or weak-minded into becoming actual criminals.

Scafaria’s previous features are 2012’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and 2015’s “The Meddler.” Those, along with a couple of made-for-TV projects, put women squarely at their story’s center. “Hustlers,” in fact, was described by critic Katie Walsh as a “girlie ‘Goodfellas’ ” – a reference to Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1990 mob flick.

Like Scorsese, Scafaria employs a number of skillful directorial touches, including beginning her film with a single-take look at Destiny entering a strip club as if she were a commodity on display – which, in effect, she is. And then there’s the music, with songs by the likes of Usher and Cardi B (both of whom make appearances) and Lorde being intertwined with specific sequences.

Besides Wu and co-stars Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, Scafaria gets perhaps the best performance out of Lopez, who put in her best performance since Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film “Out of Sight.” Scafaria also uses Julia Stiles as a version of magazine writer Pressler, which allows her to relate the whole story as an as-told-to study.

And while she never downplays the crimes her characters commit, Scafaria does pose a valid question: When the prey turns tables on the predator, isn’t that some sort of fitting justice?

In the "Me, Too" era, the answer has to be yes.