Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria
Vapid, ostentatious, and terrifically unapologetic about any of it, Scafaria’s Hustlers is Crime and Punishment with glitter and cheap perfume clinging to it, a morality tale (but not how you think), a music video with above-average plot, and Jennifer Lopez telling the world she’s still that bitch.
Destiny (Constance Wu) is the new girl at a Wall Street-frequented strip club, a timid little flower (as much as a stripper can be) trying to get by in the heady days of 2007. It’s uninspiring grimy work, and all her money is lost to skeevy middle managers taking their cut of what she wrests loose from the suits. How far up the corporate stripper pole can one girl go?
Then one night she catches Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) putting on a club-burning performance that showers her in cash and grants her a power that has nothing to do with money, all while wearing a combined three square inches of fabric. What follows is a shot-reverse shot sequence of J-Lo making her body do the impossible around a steel rod and Wu eye-fucking the power she exudes.
Scafaria’s build-up to this goddess-like entrance, bathed as it is in middle-00s aesthetic and sounds, is an alley-oop pass meant to remind us of who’s about to step on stage, because as she takes the floor, she could just as easily be dancing her song of her own. And then she steps forward and slams home the lob with an authority that both turns back the clock and raises a finger to anyone thinking age is more than a number for her.
The physicality of Lopez’s performance has that same guts Mickey Rourke showed in The Wrestler, with both characters so enmeshed in their acts and enthralled to the power of it, for better or worse. Rourke was perfect then, Lopez is perfect here, and it’s like no time has passed at all. Unfortunately the rest of Hustlers never reaches the same heights.
For reasons unexplained, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, and like an ocelot to Lopez’s lion, she learns the skill of how to rub wads of cash from wallets, but as the financial crisis puts the old ways to bed, and girls still got to provide, the two team up again for a slightly more weaponized business scheme: grabbing men from bars, drugging and dragging them to the club where they run up tabs from which they get their share. Welcome to the rise and fall of a very particular type of crime where there are no innocents.
A 2015 Destiny, seated on a white couch, in her prim house, in a proper suburban neighbourhood, narrates the dark deeds as war stories, tacking an uninspired voiceover onto Hustlers that wants to be like Ray Liotta’s commentary in Goodfellas but serves no real purpose other than giving Destiny a podium for what’s a peculiar discussion on the ethics of stripping, stealing and the commerce of flesh.
Like Raskolnikov pondering the morality of axe-murdering a money lender so that he, a self-imagined leader of men, can fund his own existence, so does Destiny argue that ripping off the men who ripped off the United States isn’t all that onerous, just a little tit-for-tat to provide for herself and hers, but it’s a self-con that becomes transparent as the clamour for ritz and swag overtakes dreams of financial security.
It’s a fun crime story of women taking advantage of men it’s hard to feel any sympathy for, and the core element of the unusual criminal enterprise is thankfully also the film’s strongest, offering extravagance, schadenfreude and colourful characters as Ramona and Destiny enlists other former coworkers in their crew.
A lot of Hustlers are montages of them working over marks, stripping, spending and gorging on their own success, to a point where it almost feels like the entirety of its middle is slow-mo shots set to music and credit card swipes. As the inevitable hangover arrives and offers only half-baked thoughts on the nature of sisterhood (again, Scafaria never quite explains why people connect the way they do) and guilt (America is one big hustle!), it’s best to remember Hustlers for the unapologetic partying and forgo the bleary-eyed hangovers.