Jennifer Lopez dominates the screen in Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s impressive depiction of a real-life stripper-gang, drugging and mugging their so-called ‘victims’. As Ramona, Lopez is mesmerising: a strong, ambitious and generous woman, determined not to fall prey to a system whose odds are stacked against her.
Constance Wu is Dorothy/Destiny, the wide-eyed new girl at Scores. She’s worked in a strip club before, but not in New York City, where competition is fierce (I mean, Cardi B works there; this is not for the faint-hearted). Destiny just wants to make enough money to live an independent life, and to help her gran get out of debt. Teaming up with Ramona seems like a good idea – and it is. Because Ramona is the best: she knows exactly what the customers want, and she’s a kind and supportive friend.
The film plays out as a series of flashbacks, linked by an interview with journalist Elizabeth (played by Julia Stiles and based on Jessica Pressler, whose article about the ‘hustle’ inspired this movie). It might have been interesting to learn more about Elizabeth, but still, it’s thanks to her persistent questioning that Destiny reveals the truth behind the women’s actions. It’s a fascinating watch, supported by a stellar soundtrack.
For once, here is a movie that doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it, to bemoan the exploitation of women while simultaneously objectifying them. Sure, there are lots of semi-naked bodies here, and several explicit pole routines. But we’re never positioned as the strip-club audience, never invited to join the fantasy. We see things as the women see them: as impressive moves, or as ways to earn a crust. It’s a fine line, and it’s well-navigated here.
We’re on the women’s side; of course we are. They just want to earn a living. We see them try ‘proper’ jobs, earning minimum wage, unable to pick their children up from school. As Ramona says, everyone’s hustling. Some people are throwing the money around, and the others are dancing. At least at the strip club the money is good.
But, after the 2008 financial crash, the pickings are slim. The Wall Street players have drifted away from the club; the women are getting older; they can’t be dancers forever (although, seeing fifty-year-old Lopez in action, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the hell not). So Ramona concocts a plan: target a guy, drug him, then take cash from his credit card at the club. When he comes round, he won’t remember everything, and he certainly won’t want to complain to the police, or risk his family finding out where he has been.
Ramona and Destiny recruit two trusted colleagues, Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and everything goes well – until they get too greedy, until flaky Dawn (Madeline Brewer) joins the team. By now, tensions are running high, and Destiny’s friendship with Ramona faces its biggest threat.
This is, actually, a wonderful film, as full of heart as it is of rage: an affecting human tale, of women refusing to be cast as victims.