“Hustlers” opens with a long Steadicam shot following new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) as she strolls into her own destiny, winding her way from the warm womb of a strip club dressing room, onto the club floor.
With this visual nod, director Lorene Scafaria asserts just what her film is, and what it’s about. It’s not just “the J. Lo stripper movie,” although it is that, and how.
But with this tip of the hat to Scorsese, Scafaria plants her film in a specific pantheon and signals what we’re in for with this sprawling crime epic of questionable narrators, unbelievable amounts of cash, and the charismatic criminals who enjoy the spoils of their unique labor. This is girlie “Goodfellas,” and it’s an energizing instant crime classic, a shot of adrenaline cloaked in cocoa butter.
Scafaria’s third feature film is based on a salacious true crime story, recounted in a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Scores,” which detailed the exploits of a merry band of New York strippers who reeled in Wall Street guys in the years after the 2008 financial crisis and incapacitated them with a potent cocktail of feminine attention, booze, ketamine and MDMA.
They’d take their credit cards to the limit and cash out, confident that no heterosexual man would report a couple thousand dollar loss at a strip club. The women justify their actions with the argument that these bankers fleeced the nation with subprime mortgages, taking their own wads of “stolen” cash to the club to shower on acres of tanned, glittered flesh. It’s an age-old circle of sex and money, and why don’t these women deserve a bigger piece of that pie?
“Hustlers” doesn’t sugarcoat the criminal actions of these Robin Hoods in Lucite heels. Our heroine, Destiny, has a moral compass, bills to pay, and a desire to rise above her status as a woman of color, the daughter of Asian immigrants.
Our antagonist is Destiny’s best friend, mother, teacher and enabler, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the biggest, brightest presence in any room. We first lay eyes on Ramona, clad in a silver cap, cape, and a few carefully placed straps, as she attacks the pole, in a jaw-dropping performance, to the strains of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl. I’ve been careless with a delicate man…”
This is a tale of bad, bad girls, and the men they render delicate, useless and vulnerable. With regard to male representation, this film is just shy of George Cukor’s 1939 divorce dramedy “The Women,” where men figure prominently but never appear on screen. The men in “Hustlers,” well, they’re there as props, mostly.
These hustlers need these men, but this is not about them. It’s about a beautiful and sometimes toxic sisterhood. The matriarchy reigns supreme in the world of “Hustlers,” and it’s both a joy and a heartbreak to watch. “Motherhood is a mental illness,” is one of Ramona’s mottos, and it refers to the extremes she’ll go to for her own children, and the “strays” she picks up and takes under her wing: Destiny, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), Dawn (Madeline Brewer).
In a film full of shiny, beautiful women, Lopez is the shiniest and the most beautiful; her character the ballsiest and the most inscrutable. It’s a role that no other living performer could pull off, and Lopez stalks and pounces on this part like a panther.
She has never been better than as the exuberant, loving and deeply morally compromised Ramona, who sees the whole world as a strip club. “Some throw the money, and some do the dance,” she says. “Hustlers” is the story of Ramona daring to dream that she might swap places, like any great American dreamer would.
4 stars out of 4
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.