Critic's Notebook: How 'Hustlers' Broke the Girl Gang Movie Curse

In recent years, stories about female criminals have been winning on TV but wilting on the big screen — until 'Hustlers' came along.

I knew Hustlers was going to be different not when 50-year-old J.Lo effortlessly whirled along a stripper pole in an Oscar-worthy showstopper as powerful as any tearful song or righteous monologue — but when her protégée Dorothy (Constance Wu) actually asked for her character's help at all.

In one of the early scenes in the based-on-a-true-story crime drama, fledgling erotic dancer Dorothy spies seasoned Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) working the strip club stage and gawps at her spellbinding charisma. Your stomach drops, imagining an All About Eve trajectory. When little Dorothy approaches Ramona on the rooftop of the club during a break, expressing admiration and requesting mentorship, you expect an alpha wolf to growl down at this potential usurper. But then mama bear Ramona envelops the young cub in her enormous fur coat, claiming her as her own. It's a beautiful moment.  

Hustlers is a surprise hit, opening at number one and tripling its modest budget in the second week of release, totaling a 10-day gross of $62 million. It's projected to net over $100 million, in a win for adult dramas, women-led pictures and racial representation in film. With Oscar buzz and largely rapturous reviews, the film is a 180-degree turn from most contemporary "girl gang" flicks.

In recent years, female criminal camaraderie has soared on television (Claws, Good Girls, Killing Eve) but faltered on the big screen, disappointing at the box office (The Kitchen and Widows) and/or with critics (Oceans 8). Why? Because these films tend to focus on singular heists that come off as pale imitations of better movies starring men. But Girl Gang TV, like Hustlers, emphasizes the platonic love and strong bonds between its women leads — as opposed to trying to thrill us with greed or revenge alone like the other films do.

Throughout Hustlers, you expect a cold betrayal that never comes (at least, not the way you think it will). That's because moviegoers have been conditioned to view beautiful women characters as enemies, competing over resources like men and money. If a female lead wants something else another female lead has — think The Favourite, Fatal Attraction, Valley of the Dolls, Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle — she'll stop at nothing to secure it for herself.  

Ramona, however, defies the tragedy of the commons to bring her pupil up to speed (which ends up benefiting them both when dancing for Wall Street's elite). In Hustlers, the protagonists eventually conflict over their post-recession scheme to drug rich, horny desperadoes at bars and run their credit cards into oblivion, but you still never doubt the love they share as each other's chosen family.

Compare this with bloodless Ocean's 8, a shallow 2018 heist comedy that brings together eight dissimilar strangers with eight specific skill sets to rob jewels from the annual Met Gala. It should have fizzed, given the pedigree of the overstuffed cast led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, but girl-Ocean's coming at the heel of hick-Ocean's (2017's Logan Lucky) only emphasized how formulaic the Soderberghian franchise is. The film made some money, but probably not what it should have considering the star power and brand name. Now it's an airplane flick you watch at 35,000 feet and instantly forget.

Meanwhile, 2018's plodding Widows and 2019's convoluted The Kitchen each had a wifey problem. Namely, that when you convene a bunch of small-time mob wives with no previous connection to one another, then plot them to somehow take over organized crime operations in lieu of their dead or arrested husbands, you merely end up showcasing a rag-tag gimmick. These characters are forced into underground conniving due to tragic circumstance, not intrinsic know-how. You pity them, but you don't necessarily root for them.

Instead, Hustlers' director Lorene Scafaria innately understands that a story about conspiratorial women must be built on a foundation of strong interpersonal solidarity. Then, and only then, will the sticky entanglements of their criminal escapades lure us in. Dorothy (aka Destiny) narrates her story via flashback to a placid journalist (Julia Stiles) and sometimes insecurely asks the reporter what Ramona has said about her behind her back. The women have long fallen out by this point, but the thread of their sisterly friendship and the pain of their estrangement keeps our eyes glued to the screen and our hearts invested in the story long after we've memorized the step-by-step machinations of their hustle. After all, the best of friends will invariably make the worst of enemies.

Tugged heartstrings (and titillated minds) are what ensure the success of Girl Gang TV shows like Claws, Good Girls and Killing Eve. Unapologetically femme in their aesthetics — from Claws' candy-coated, Florida-steamy wardrobes to Good Girls' oozy French pop soundtrack to Killing Eve's flouncy frocks and poisoned perfumes — these shows don't bother to emulate the brooding masculinity of drug dramas or mafia thrillers.

They instead rely on the sisterhood and/or sexual chemistry between their leads. And just as important, their protagonists' illicit predilections aren't only based on financial necessity, but inborn criminal talent. Over Claws' three seasons, we witness Desna Simms (Niecy Nash) grow her skeezy nail salon money laundering scheme into a full-on, guns-blazing Dixie Mafia offshoot with the help of her all-female crew. And as we see in Good Girls' second season, unmerry homemaker Beth Boland (Christina Hendricks) just can't quit her addiction to swindling, no matter how hard she tries for the sake of her straight-shooting husband and kids. (We learn in a flashback that Beth's unlawful behaviors began with "borrowing" cars in her teen years.) Similarly, on Killing Eve, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is a gifted intelligence agent precisely because she's drawn to her own bloodthirsty nature through her hate-flirtation with assassinatrix Villanelle (Jodie Comer).

Female gangsters are having a pop culture moment right now — no doubt Husters' success somewhat inspired the greenlighting of a Set It Off reboot — but the best of these stories are the ones unafraid to simultaneously embrace feminine appeal and emotional sisterhood.