The women in Hustlers want independence more than anything – independence from men, specifically. They have no problem working for men – or working them over – but the film goes out of its way to show that they’re really at their happiest when they’re with each other. The film’s plot – which is based on a 2015 article in New York Magazine – involves a group of high-end strippers who keep thinking of bigger and better (and more dangerous) ways to get money during the last decade’s financial crisis. This syndicate of women dabbled in illegality in their practices, maxing out credit cards and draining bank accounts, but their actions are principled. The wealthy men they target are imagined as the true villains.
Constance Wu plays Dorothy, a struggling young woman living in Queens trying to support her grandmother. She gets a job dancing at a strip club in Manhattan, but quickly becomes weary with how little money she makes – and how much her bosses take off the top. She is fascinated by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s grandest attraction, and after some slight cajoling, Ramona agrees to teach her some tricks of the trade. The veteran dancer explains the nuances of the game to Dorothy (in the club, she goes by Destiny), the subtle ways to get wealthy men to fork over more and more cash. Other dancers (some played by Cardi B and Lizzo) give her snippets of advice, like “drain the clock, not the cock”.
But when the market crashes in 2008, Ramona and Dorothy’s exorbitant lifestyle wanes. Failing Wall Street no longer funnels cash-rich meat heads into the club, and the scene begins filling with cheaper talent more willing to perform acts that Ramona and co. only hoped to emulate. Not one to go down without a fight, Ramona drafts Dorothy into a new crew (which also includes Kiki Palmer and Lili Reinhart), which targets wealthy men, gets them totally wasted so they don’t notice the girls fleecing the cards. When that plan becomes less full-proof, they begin drugging the men and taking their money while they sleep. The set-up pays off exorbitantly, allowing the women to live an incredibly opulent lifestyle.
Since their operation leans heavily on the desperate, lecherous nature of these men – and their meek embarrassment when they realize their predicament – they are mostly able to get away with their schemes. Things turn sour when Ramona can’t seem to stop striving for more, taking more chances and getting more sloppy. While Dorothy and Ramona seem to have an endless supply of delusion and rationalization to explain their actions, it becomes clear that they’re not quite Robin Hoods, as they rob the rich to then bankroll the very kind of lifestyle for themselves, that they so clearly resent in their hapless clients. When their extravagance leads to their downfall, the committed friendship is tested.
Hustlers is told almost entirely in flashback, with the script framed around Dorothy being interviewed by a journalist (played by Julia Stiles) about the clan’s successes and mishaps. This allows the film to set itself up rather classically, foreshadowing the fall even as we watch the rise. A Goodfellas-style voiceover narration runs heavily in the background, which is not the only allusion to Scorsese. But writer-director Lorene Scafaria tweaks Scorsese’s signature, frenetic style and seamlessly translates it from a male-dominated universe and into a complicated tale of love and sisterhood. It’s whooshing pans and high-octane editing add the usual jolt, but Hustlers does not shy away from its true focus.
Constance Wu, hot off starring in last year’s mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians, transitions well here to play Dorothy, a character much more complicated and rougher around the edges. But it is Lopez – who hasn’t shown this kind of voraciousness in a part for decades – who is Hustlers biggest star. This is a true movie star turn, one which takes advantage of Lopez’s abilities and her star power unlike any of her films previously. It’s not simply that Lopez is good in the part (and she is; incredibly good in fact), but she understands how to wield her own outsized persona into this character. Her understanding of Ramona’s sincere, maternal instincts, but also for her greed, allows her to give a brilliant performance of someone who contains multitudes.
Hustlers will certainly look familiar to some well-acquainted to these kind of true crime dramedies, where the energy of the filmmaking and the performances drives the movie more than the actual story does. I’m not sure I buy this film as a sophisticated satire of The Great Recession or, frankly, an astute story about crime. Those details aren’t as important to Scafaria as showcasing the level of loyalty and faithfulness these women have for each other in the face of so many men who attempt to steal their dignity. It cares little for the dishonorable nature of their actions, and more for how those actions display their dedication to one another. Unlike other Goodfellas rip-offs, the crime is only half the story.
Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria