Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Cardi B, Lizzo
At one point in “Hustlers” — a scathing satire of the fickleness of the American economy set in and around a Manhattan strip club — Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona describes a private dance she does for a Wall Street bigwig as his “most honest” business deal of the day.
The movie, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend at the End of the World”) and based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” smartly utilizes that framework to give shape and context to the criminal scheme hatched by Ramona and her co-workers.
A strip club makes for an ideal setting to exemplify the relentless consumerism that’s an unmistakable facet of American life. With all pretenses gone of anything beyond self-interest, the business model could not be simpler or more direct.
The scheme launched in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis — which sapped the fictional club at the center of “Hustlers” and many others just like it of a large source of income because of the impact on Wall Street — then becomes less about revenge against a chauvinistic clientele and more about pure, old-fashioned entrepreneurial innovation.
That’s not to say the movie forgives or excuses their scam, in which men would be drugged, lured to the club and subject to multi-thousand-dollar credit card charges while they were barely conscious. There’s certainly no unambiguous delight taken from a revenge standpoint, even as Scafaria offers plenty of motivation in her depictions of some of the more degrading experiences faced by protagonist Destiny (Constance Wu), Ramona and other dancers.
What resonates most in Scafaria’s telling is that getting even is simply not the primary motivating factor. These women have formed a business model that works, allowing for an upheaval of traditional power dynamics and for the maintenance of a high-living lifestyle, even as the bottom falls out of the economy.
The picture works as well as it does because it combines this provocative perspective with relentlessly entertaining storytelling. The script moves at lightning speed, while offering clinical detail in its behind-the-scenes depiction of what these women put into their work.
The cinematography captures the cheap, flashy aesthetic of the strip club with authenticity and marries it to a depiction of aspirational wealth that’s personified in rooftop pool parties and blindingly white penthouse floors.
“Hustlers” is far more “Wolf of Wall Street” than “Magic Mike,” in terms of what it’s interested in and how it pursues it. But it is very much its own thing.
And it has, at its center, a performance by Lopez that exudes the sort of charisma she has displayed throughout her career as an actor, with an energy to the work that makes it feel like a rebirth for the multihyphenate icon on-screen. You want to see the biggest names take on projects with edge and weight, to use their talents not to play it safe but to do something risky, to challenge our intrinsic perceptions of a person like Ramona. That’s what being a movie star is all about.