Jennifer Lopez’s entrance in Hustlers is the movie embodiment of the “run me over” celebrity meme. Wearing a spangly silver, fringed thong bodysuit, she takes the stage for her solo performance. The camera follows her, tracing her graceful and powerful movements, as entranced as the audience by her magnetic presence. It’s a seductive scene — after all, Ramona (Lopez) is a professional stripper. But there’s none of the lecherous lewdness, of the drooling, lascivious gaze we’ve come to associate moments. Instead, it’s an empowering celebration of a woman in her 50s pulling off a feat of strength and athleticism — and looking damn good doing it.
Hustlers, at its core, is a movie much more interested in the relationships women have with each other than those they sustain with the men around them. Directed and written by Lorene Scafaria, and based on a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, it’s a thrilling story filtered through the female gaze — and all the more commanding for it.
In a tribute to its source material, Hustlers’ narrative is anchored in a 2014 interview between a reporter (Julia Stiles), and her source, former stripper Destiny (Constance Wu), who describes how — along with mentor and friend Ramona — she became a ringleader in a con to scam rich Wall Street clients in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The two women meet in 2007, when Ramona takes Destiny, a new addition to a Midtown Manhattan strip club, under her wing, in the most dramatic of ways. They’ve barely spoken six words to each before Ramona is literally and figuratively lifting up half of her enormous fur coat, offering its warmth to Destiny. Thus, a sisterhood is born. With Ramona by her side, a new world of designer clothes, fabulous penthouse apartments, and most importantly, financial independence, seems open to her. But at the peak of their prosperity on the pole, Destiny gets pregnant, and America is hit with the 2008 financial crisis, making it near impossible for a single mom to find a job.
By 2011, Destiny is forced to go back to what she knows — except nothing is the same. With the economy in shambles, rich finance guys are no longer flocking to strip clubs. That’s when she reunites with Ramona, with whom she’d lost touch over the years. Together, they put together a crew, and a plan, to hustle former clients and targets out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, beating the crooks at their own game. And if that includes a dubious concoction of molly and ketamine and maxed out corporate credit cards, resulting in bloody businessmen and slurred social security numbers, then so be it.
Hustlers’ selling point may be its dazzling ensemble cast — Lizzo, Cardi B., Trace Lysette, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart co-star, among others — but Lopez and Wu are undoubtedly its power-center. The former is mesmerizingly good, doling out catch-phrases and advice like a protective den mother. Ramona is the kind of person everyone naturally gravitates towards, like sunflowers bending towards the sun, quickly wilting once she loses interest. She’s wild and maternal, loving and fierce, protective, and dangerous. It’s the role Lopez was born to play, and if the Academy has any sense, there’ll be some Oscar chatter in her future. As for Wu, she grounds Destiny in a touching emotional quest for validation. As the daughter of Cambodian immigrants whose only remaining family is the ailing grandmother who raised her, you can feel her excitement when she’s suddenly welcomed into an adoptive tribe, ready to support her at every turn — and how much she’d be ready to sacrifice to keep it.
The smart dialogue and hilarious details of the film is what makes the cast really shine. There are so many layers of delight involved in watching J.Lo as Ramona jamming to Britney Spears’ “Gimme More,” in a Cadillac Escalade. Same goes for Cardi B.’s performance as Diamond, a no-nonsense stripper from the Bronx who teaches Destiny the trick to a perfect lap dance (“Drain the clock, not the cock”), Riverdale darling Lili Reinhart’s stress-induced vomit reflex, or Lizzo busting out her flute backstage. Rather than detract from the larger story, these tiny moments add to the myth. What’s more, Scafaria does an impressive job of recreating an era that’s just distant enough for nostalgia, while also fresh in many memories. Is there anything more 2007 than Usher showing up at a strip club? Or, Ramona designing an all-denim swim collection? (Shoutout to Mitchell Travers’ fabulous costumes, which nail the era’s fascination with rhinestones and massive hoop earrings.)
Still, what truly raises the bar for Hustlers is the way Scafaria subtly weaves in the female gaze, with the help of a nearly all-female crew. Kayla Emter’s editing, which gave us J.Lo’s powerful opening scene, is just one element at play. Another is that we know barely any of the names of the dozens men who waft in an out of these women’s lives.They simply don’t matter in the context of this story. It’s rare that we get to see groups of women just be, in a way that feels lived in and authentic. One scene, during a Christmas party held at Ramona’s sumptuous apartment at the height of their con’s success, is ostensibly there to showcase the kind of wealth these women now have access to. But more than anything, what comes across is the joyous, raucous fun that a group of female friends can have together, without the fighting, drama or backstabbing that usually creeps into on-screen portrayals. Of course, some of that does come later, but even then, it’s not without complexity.
What comes through in this movie is a ferocious rage at the status quo, a desire to even the playing field for a slice of the population that’s repeatedly discounted and discarded, that feels very in tune with our current times, despite the action taking place nearly a decade ago. Women are angry, and this movie not only understands that and gives us an outlet to channel it, but also offers a joyful, celebratory respite from it.
“The game is rigged,” Ramona says in an effort to justify drugging and stealing from man after man, often risking their lives in the process. And even if you know what they’re doing is wrong, she’s more than a little convincing.This is a tale of those too often on the losing side. Is it so bad for us to hope they win? That willingness to operate in those grey areas, the murky abyss between right and wrong, friendship and rivalry, love and hate, is what keeps Hustlers from veering into total wish fulfillment. That said, if it had just been about J.Lo. wrapping Constance Wu safely in her giant fur and waving cash in the air, that would have been enough. Dayenu!