Like many, I was skeptical of Hustlers when its trailer dropped. With a star-studded cast, glitzy setpieces, and everything cast in a motel-sign pink glow, it looked to be one long music video. Imagine my surprise when I was met not with a surface-level, thong-clad celebration of “girl power,” but instead with a nuanced depiction of complex—and above all, distinctly human—women doing something that could so easily be boiled down to caricature. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of thongs… And denim. So much denim.
Destiny (Constance Wu), the daughter of two Cambodian immigrants who dropped her on her grandmother’s doorstep in Queens when she was a child, strips at a Manhattan club to support herself and her grandmother. In this neon jungle crawling with bored Wall Street schmucks, veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) sees Destiny’s struggle—as well as her potential—and takes her under her wing. With her magnetic presence and tremendous fur coat, Ramona resembles a lioness protecting her cub—a sweet image until you remember the stories about mother lions devouring their babies. The connotations of the fur coat, as well as Ramona’s dual role as parental figure and sexual mentor, also make her look a little like a pimp.
However, writer/director Lorene Scafaria is too smart to cast Ramona in such a blatantly sinister light or make her out to be the Harvey Keitel to Destiny’s Jodie Foster. Just as the story’s overall ethics are fuzzy, the lines here are blurred. Does Ramona manipulate Destiny into her schemes, or is it an insult to Destiny’s agency to even ask? Are they, foremost, friends or business partners, or a teacher and pupil? Their relationship only becomes more complex—and therefore more interesting—as the film goes on.
Destiny is eventually forced leave the strip club following the 2008 recession and her getting pregnant. Years later, after leaving her abusive boyfriend and struggling as a single mother, Destiny reunites with Ramona. For club owners, the financial crisis introduced a new level of desperation for business; for our main characters, it brought a new sense of financial urgency and a fiery rage against the wealthy men who destroyed their country while getting lap dances. The two women recruit fellow strippers Anabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) to strike up what Destiny often refers to as a “business:” getting men hammered and gleefully plucking their credit cards from their tailored suits, dividing the profits amongst themselves and the club.
Eventually, the squad swaps out plain old liquor with a new concoction: drinks spiked with ketamine and MDMA. The drugging—which Ramona casually refers to as “getting creative,” another necessity brought on by the recession—makes men more likely to go along with anything and forget all about it in the morning. We see a montage of completely incapacitated men, a parade of slurred words, slumped bodies and gaping mouths, still with the ghost of that sleazy smirk these men take on when they—oh, so wrongly—think they’re in control. When we see one of the hustlers’ victims topple into a glass coffee table in slow motion like a crash test dummy, we don’t know whether to laugh or wince. Scafaria forces the characters and the audience to face conflicting feelings about what goes on behind those velvet drapes. These guys deserve it, right? …Right?
This balancing act of humor and unease is where the film shines. Scafaria let the movie be everything at once: revenge fantasy, feminist manifesto, true crime, cautionary tale. Comedy, drama, tragedy. Framing the story with journalist Jennifer’s exchange with Destiny—based on Jessica Pressler’s interview with Roselyn Keo—allows the good and the bad to run in constant parallel, so that even magical moments like Usher (playing his younger self) breezing into the club and raining money on all the strippers to his own song are subdued by retrospective melancholy. Comparisons to The Wolf of Wall Street are fair, but I believe Hustlers pulls a more sophisticated tonal magic trick compared to Scorcese’s film.
The script also incorporates several lines from Pressler’s piece word-for-word, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed that unless you read it. While I read the article mere hours before watching the film, Hustlers’ structural and even semantic loyalty to its source material never felt unnatural. When the movie did embellish or stray from reality, it did so for narrative purposes or emotional impact, usually succeeding. One sequence I cannot get out of my mind involves a lot of Constance Wu simply walking or running around in some gold stiletto boots. These scenes build like a stack of anvils and end with a devastating plot twist that sends them crashing right into your gut.
The emotional turbulence of Hustlers would not exist without its cast. Wu skillfully projects the attitude and mannerisms of a woman masking vulnerability with defiance. And, as you have undoubtedly heard, Jennifer Lopez casts a spell. She is raw power, strutting in and out of rooms like she owns the world—and you believe that she really does. She achieves a “wild card” persona without being cartoonish. As I watched her walk down the street in 2013 still wearing a Juicy Couture sweatshirt, I thought to myself, Huh… wasn’t Juicy, like, not cool anymore in 2013? As she turns around to reveal dark roots peeking out from her sandy dyed tresses, she reminds us that she’s human. In 2013, the twilight of her glory days, Ramona is clearly on her way out but stubbornly clinging to her old life.
J-Lo also does exceedingly well with Ramona’s unique blend of roles: part mob boss and part adoptive mother. Her adoptive children don’t disappoint, either; Kiki Palmer’s Mercedes got several chuckles out of me, and although Annabelle’s one shtick was vomiting in every scene she’s in, Lili Reinhart sold it well enough. The dynamic between the four central characters, as well as the other cast of characters at the strip club including Diamond (a side-splitting Cardi B) and Liz (Lizzo, playing the flute no less—rejoice!), feels organic. Julia Stiles also does her job as the clean-cut, well-off (kind of) white woman who describes her childhood financial status as “comfortable,” at first clumsily clashing with Destiny but eventually earning her trust. As the two build a rapport, they peel back each other’s layers, revealing that they’re both more than they seem.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
Simply put, Hustlers takes a very easily botchable premise and executes the hell out of it. The film raises moral questions and kicks them around a little bit with no false promises of answering them. Sure, it’s gorgeous to look at, but it also crafts a masterful story and contains some of the most compelling depictions of female friendship I’ve seen in a theatre in a long time. It warms my heart to know that powerful stories created and led by women are gaining the kind of praise and respect Hustlers has won, and I can’t wait for what else is to come.