Technically, Hustlers begins with a young woman named Destiny (Constance Wu) waiting nervously backstage of a strip club to entice a group of raucous Wall Street big spenders.
In truth, Hustlers doesn’t begin for another ten or so minutes, when Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona Vega arrives on stage decked out in a shimmering silver one-piece outfit and sky-high heels. Ramona is the club’s marquee performer, and it takes just a few seconds to see why. To the tune of Fiona Apple’s Gen-X angst anthem “Criminal”, Ramona hooks her leg around the pole and launches into an astonishing display of age-defying athleticism and ferocious sexuality. Each spin, flip, and smack of flesh sizzles with determination and even righteous fury, as if Ramona is challenging you to step to her, even though you both know you don’t have the stones to breath her rarefied air. Whether you’re titillated or terrified, it’s a scene that will set your jaw ajar for its duration, and for some moments afterwards as Ramona luxuriates in her triumph on a rooftop, wearing a downright obscene fur coat.
With those two indelible images buzzing in your head, it’s easy to see why Destiny would be taken in by Ramona, snuggling underneath the warmth of that coat. Destiny, real name Dorothy, is new to the strip club game, and isn’t making nearly enough to support herself or her ailing grandmother. Ramona, with unabashed confidence and unqualified success, represents what Destiny could be, with some help. Without a moment’s hesitation, Ramona takes Destiny under, well, her fur coat, sharing pole dancing tips, introducing her to the other dancers, and taking her into the VIP suites, where the club’s biggest spenders drop thousands of dollars for private time with the girls. These halcyon days of 2008 are interrupted, as every other walk of life is, by the Great Recession, which wipes out the club’s wealthy clientele and leaves Destiny and Ramona to fend for themselves. Time passes and odd jobs pop up, but nothing beats the pockets of the Wall Street wizards who, as Ramona explains, robbed them and the whole country blind without any consequence. As penance for their crimes, Ramona, Destiny, and two other strippers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) concoct a scheme to drug these men and run up large sums of money on their credit cards, knowing full well they would be too embarrassed (and are too rich) to report the crimes.
We’ve seen plenty of this type of Robin Hood tale in recent years, even with female-led casts (most recently with last year’s Widows), but Hustlers feels particularly unique. For starters, the world that writer and director Lorene Scafaria crafts wholly celebrates the indomitable power of women, even in a setting that Hollywood frequently positions as a grim “last resort”. From Ramona’s first spin onwards, the women run the show. Where a lesser film would’ve relied on catfighting over money or men to drive the story, Scafaria builds genuine camaraderie between the dancers through their mutual desire for (reasonable) upward mobility, and unfurls compelling tension when those bonds are tested by their own individual vices and weaknesses. The film also doesn’t exploit the women, through gratuitous Showgirls-like nudity or the dangers and indignities that come with sex work. Hustlers doesn’t shy away from it (one of Destiny’s encounters is unexpectedly heartbreaking), but it is used to fortify the resolve and relationships. As for the guys, they are worth as much as their black cards, serving as either comic fodder, anonymous sleaze, or a notable celebrity cameo. It’s a refreshing change of pace and perspective to see these highly capable women run the streets of New York with the impunity that men have enjoyed since the beginning of time.
And they look like they are having a ball. At its best, which is most of the time, Hustlers is brisk and engaging, vividly shot and backed by one of the year’s best soundtracks (featuring your favorite late 00’s hits and more Janet Jackson than we could ever deserve). Much of its irresistible energy is sourced from Jennifer Lopez’s performance. In case the beginning of this review hadn’t made it clear enough, Lopez is incredible. Ramona is the best role she’s had in twenty years, if not ever, and her performance is more-than-deserving of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She distills her natural movie-star charisma and every character tool in her arsenal – loving mother or big sister, shrewd businesswoman, seductive vamp – into one laser-sharp nuclear weapon that she wields with startling ease. Even in her sweetest moments, Lopez makes you feel like she’s a hair’s breadth away from flipping her mother lioness routine to its more savage extreme. That volatility, cocooned within layers of swaggering, almost flippant confidence, makes every second she’s on screen mesmerizing.
The problem with having such a singular performance at the core is that Hustlers is inevitably lesser when she isn’t front, center, or sideways. Her absences are immediately felt, and the film can sag without her. It’s most notable when the film bounces between the main narrative and its framing device, as Destiny recalls her past with Ramona to a reporter for New York Magazine, played by Julia Stiles. The story is engrossing on its own, and considering how little those scenes add to it, the device seems unnecessary, although not a complete distraction. It does offer some nice emotional beats for Constance Wu to play as audience surrogate. She has the unenviable task of acting against Lopez the most, and while she doesn’t quite match her verve, she does well enough, as does the rest of the cast. Keke Palmer is a scene-stealing delight as Mercedes, and, surprisingly, Cardi B makes a strong impression with her limited screen time.
If Hustlers were nothing more than a Jennifer Lopez star vehicle, it would be a huge triumph of its kind, giving her the kind of role she’s been jonesing for since Out of Sight. As undeniable as Lopez is, Hustlers operates just as strongly as a muscular but lithe tale of how rampant avarice bleeds into the most unlikely of places, and the unexpected delight that comes from seeing those seemingly without power balance the scales on their own terms. It’s the most empowering, thoughtful, dignified trip to the strip club you’ll likely ever take.