J-Lo gets second billing in the credits of Hustlers, but it’s unmistakably the superstar singer-actor’s show all the way, right from her jaw-dropping entrance clad in a few sequined strips of fabric, climbing, sliding and twerking to a backdrop of flashing neon, thunderous beats and the roar of a frenzied audience high on testosterone and cash.
As she slithers on the dance floor covered by a deluge of dollar bills, the film transports you to the Wall Street of 2007, a hedonistic carnival of easy money and everything that it could buy, which included good times with the likes of Ramona, the star of a New York strip club, played with sensational swagger by Jennifer Lopez, and her, er, colleagues. For Ramona was indeed a working woman, in it strictly for the cash that paid for her luxurious Manhattan apartment, fancy Cadillac, sinful furs and her daughter’s dreams… all of which were threatened by the Wall Street crash of September 2008. The bankers got a bailout, but the strippers didn’t. Hustlers is the story, based on journalist Jessica Pressler’s account in New York magazine, of how a sorority of strippers tried to keep their party going after the crash.
Constance Wu, the star of Crazy Rich Asians, plays newcomer Destiny, who Ramona takes under her wing and later co-opts to carry out a scheme that starts out as a con but soon crosses the line into crime. Their plan is to get their customers drunk enough to hand over their credit cards but just sober enough to reveal their PIN numbers. But it involves too much effort and some men refuse to play. So Lopez and Wu develop a recipe – involving party drugs – that takes out the customers’ ability to say no. Soon the stripper sisters are hiring underlings and shopping like it’s 2007 again. Any fears or doubts are rationalised away by Ramona, who declares the bankers are likely spending money stolen from regular workers and tax payers.
In one scene she tells Destiny that the top bosses of Wall Street often think nothing of dropping tens of thousands of dollars at their club in one night. “And that’s their most honest transaction of the day,” she adds. Many men have their credit cards maxed out, but the con is kept going by their reluctance to explain to their employers or their wives how they lost the money.
What remains with the viewer is the tight bond that Destiny and Ramona form with each other
The film is narrated primarily through the device of the magazine reporter interviewing Destiny a few years down the line. These exchanges provide doses of reality between what can otherwise seem like a night at a gentleman’s club for the price of a cinema ticket. Director Lorene Scafaria does not necessarily bring a woman’s gaze to the strip club, and while there is little effort to elicit sympathy for the victims, the film also does not gloss over the fact that its leading ladies are drugging men and stealing from them. Lopez, who has given some of the most memorably bad performances on the silver screen, brings her A-game to Hustlers, single-handedly elevating it from a flashy, glossy mediocrity to a memorable flick. Wu and veteran Julia Stiles, who plays the reporter, offer able support, with help from current pop culture stars like Cardi B and Lizzo.
The con unravels, as many often do, when the players get greedy. Despite Destiny’s fervent warnings, Ramona takes unnecessary risks, and finally, when one victim turns out to be a desperate man on the verge of losing everything, even the fig leaf of rationalisation falls away. The long arm of the law does reach out, but delivers only a light slap to the schemers.
What remains with the viewer is the tight bond that Destiny and Ramona form with each other and some of their fellow dancers as they dare to take control of a business that has always depended on them and yet has offered them no respect. For a brief while, the hustlers wrote their own rules for an old game.