Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles
We’re all familiar with true-crime movies. And thanks to a heightened sense of feminism in the #MeToo age, we’ve even seen women perpetrating crimes in the movies. (Did you think the crew of Ocean’s Eight was going to let the boys have all the fun?) But rarely have we seen women propelling true-crime movies. That’s the sweet spot that Hustlers inhabits: It’s a funny, seductive, inspired-by-true-life tale of women whose brains are running a mile a minute while their bodies literally submerge men into a stupor. Hustlers is Scorsese with strippers. It’s Goodfellas with G-strings.
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Based on the acclaimed article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler for the female website The Cut, Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu) as she tries to make a go of exotic dancing in New York to support her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). It is 2007, and Destiny quickly realizes that stripping isn’t the easy money gig she thought it would be. After getting racist catcalls (“Hey, Lucy Liu!”) and servicing creeps in the champagne room (“What did your daddy do to you?”), her hard-earned tips get cut down considerably by takes for the club, the manager, and the sleazy bouncer who doubles as the drug dealer.
And then, emerging out of the desperate haze of Destiny’s life is the club’s star dancer, Ramona…and boy, is it an entrance for the ages. With a dot pattern of lights straight out of a Roy Lichtenstein print as her backdrop, Jennifer Lopez wraps herself around the pole like her own work of art, her natural grace and athleticism exploding on the screen. In many ways, Ramona Vega is a role Jennifer Lopez was born to play: The former In Living Color Fly Girl not only inhabits Ramona’s curves and unapologetic sexuality, her charisma makes the character pop, the way Julia Roberts’ star power made Erin Brokovich a force of nature.
Destiny latches on to Ramona like a besotted fangirl, and Ramona takes the newbie under her protective wing. (Make that paw: In one of many unforgettable moments from the movie, Ramona opens her voluminous chinchilla coat and invites Destiny to “climb into my fur.”) Ramona tutors Destiny on how to move her body, and the two start working the private rooms as a duo. The money flows like champagne.
And then the 2008 housing bubble bursts, decimating Wall Street and the strip clubs where the stockbrokers and money sharks used to throw their dollar bills around. But Destiny has other problems: She gets pregnant, then finds the ranks of conventional employment closed to her. So she goes back to the sad wasteland that used to be her stripping playground, where she reconnects with Ramona. But now Ramona has a new scheme to get paying clients into the club: Go on fishing expeditions to the financial district’s upscale bars, use other girls (including Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart and Scream Queens’ Keke Palmer, who provide valuable comic relief) to sweeten the deal for their marks, and entice the guys back to the club where the gang proceeds to max out their credit cards. Oh, and lace the guy’s drinks with ketamine and Ecstasy to keep them happy and amnesiac.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria packs Hustlers with iconic moments. (Look! There’s Cardi B—a real-life stripper before she made it big in hip hop—dispensing bon mots like “Drain the clock, not the cock”! There’s Lizzo playing a flute in the dressing room! There’s Usher sending all the girls into a frenzy!) It’s all in the spirit of frenetic, discursive fun you would find in Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. But what Scafaria also brings to the table is an overwhelming sense of sisterhood, the ideal of women supporting each other. And like a true sister, Scafaria frames these dancing women with a playful eye; the camera doesn’t leer at them so much as celebrate them. The strippers at the center of Hustlers have weaponized their sexuality, and at its core, the film is also a revenge fantasy, an unrepentant sting on the privileged men who have hoodwinked a whole country and gotten away with it.
The only time Hustlers threatens to flag is when the protagonists meet their downfall—as they inevitably will—but even then Scafaria couches the landing with affection and poignancy. And on the way down, she manages to deliver succinct social commentary. “This whole country is a strip club,” Ramona says with all the wisdom of the street-smart. “There are people throwing the money. And there are people doing the dance.” Razor-sharp insight like that made me want to leave Hustlers a tip on my way out.