Let’s talk about Jennifer Lopez. Is Hustlers the best thing she’s done since her heyday with films like Selena and Out of Sight? Absolutely. That much is obvious from her first scene, where she instantly captivates both the men and women of Moves, the strip club that the majority of the action takes place, commanding their attention and leaving them, and us in the movie theater, all begging for more. To say that she steals the show is putting it mildly; this film belongs to her the second she steps onscreen.
It’s a career high for the superstar, and it comes at a time when discussions are being had about the severe under-representation of Latinx people in Hollywood. Lopez is the only, I repeat, only Latinx actress over the age of 45 to hold a lead role in the past 12 years. This movie is also a victory for Asian representation – Constance Wu is the main character, and the Crazy Rich Asians star is able to display even more range here than in that film. Hustlers isn’t simply a showcase of talented actresses though, it’s a clever, contemplative, and glitzy true tale of a group of women who decided to bite back at the misogynistic system that wanted to keep them unseen and unheard.
Based on the 2015 New York article “The Hustlers at Scores”, Hustlers begins back in 2007, as new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) starts a job at Moves strip club. Uncertain, unconfident, and out of her element, Destiny struggles to earn money from the club’s Wall Street clientele and doesn’t have much luck finding common ground with her coworkers. The men are entitled and aggressive jerks and the women seem to only be looking out for themselves – it’s a hostile work environment, to say the least.
Things turn around once Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) enters the picture. She’s a veteran of the scene, and her radiant confidence and self-assurance forces everyone to gravitate towards her, men and women alike. Ramona takes Destiny under her wing (or in this case, a large fur coat), guiding the young newcomer through the lifestyle by filling her in on all the different types of men that frequent the club, and how best to empty their wallets. All the ladies benefit from Ramona’s teachings, and she embraces her role as both ringleader and mother hen as the club and its workers prosper and a unique kind of camaraderie forms.
Things are going great for Destiny and her friends, until the 2008 financial crisis / recession hits the country hard, causing business at Moves to dry up. The women go their separate ways to support themselves, but Destiny is unable to find other jobs and now has a daughter to look after as well. Out of desperation, she returns to Moves, but the atmosphere has shifted back to its unwelcoming ways. Luckily, Ramona has also returned, but the tough times have forced her to work a little outside the law to earn some money. She, along with Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), bring Destiny into their business: Targeting men at bars, drugging their drink, and bringing them back to the club to max out their credit cards.
While that’s certainly an immoral thing to do, Ramona happily explains her justifications. These men screwed over the less fortunate time and time again, and now, in the wake of the recession, things are worse than ever for the poor, while these Wall Street sleazes got off scot-free. What these women are doing is getting revenge, and conning a system that conned them one too many times. The rationale is that these men are going to dump all of their money at a place like this anyway, so why not help them along?
Hustler’s foundation is the friendship and bond formed between Destiny and Ramona; the crime aspect is just the icing on top. Their relationship gets testy as the scheme inevitably grows larger and more dangerous. Destiny is far more cautious and calculating when it comes to how exactly these women can pull this thing off, while Ramona is fueled by both righteous emotion and her own ego. As time passes, it becomes apparent that these ladies, especially Ramona, have seemingly lost track of why they’re doing this in the first place.
It’s a Robin Hood-esque plot, stealing from the rich, but the second part, giving to the poor, is one that gets left by the wayside. The women burn through their stolen cash like there’s no tomorrow, the film shows montage after montage of lavish shopping and large, New York City apartment purchases, and it’s obvious that they may have become exactly the sort of people they initially sought to punish. A difference in morals causes tension between Destiny and Ramona, and the ethics of what it is that they’re doing keep coming into question. It’s noteworthy that for Destiny, this has always been about survival, having to provide and care for herself, her daughter, and her elderly mother (Wai Ching Ho). For Ramona, who has a plethora of men that cater to her every whim already, this is just revenge and a means to remain wealthy.
It has to all come crashing down eventually, and Hustlers does a near perfect job of making that journey as entertaining as possible. There’s a tired, matter-of-fact interview style between Destiny and Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), the journalist covering her story, some years later that acts as the narrative frame of the film, but this approach at least allows for the film to end on an interesting note. Hustlers is a fun and raucous time, but beneath all the lights and glamour is a story about underprivileged and underrepresented people pushing back in whatever way they can, and how all they truly have is each other. Both provocative and thoughtful, it’s a showstopper of a film with a dynamite cast, and one of the year’s most exciting and entertaining.
4.5 / 5 Stars