If people are strongest in the places they’ve been broken, then Hustlers is a testament to that idea. It’s based on true the decades-long scheme of four New York City strippers who seduced, drugged, and robbed multiple stock traders and CEOs in order to purchase wants and needs they believed high society denied them.
This group, led by Ramona Vega played by Jennifer Lopez, comprise of mostly middle to lower class minority women squeezed into the city’s margins. If they don’t strip, a retail job at Old Navy is their best bet, and if that doesn’t suffice, maybe a perfume position in a department store will do.
Constance Wu plays Destiny, the naïve hero plunging into a dimly lit world of lust, greed, and drugs ruled by the city’s most powerful men. Destiny sinks into the shadows of the Moves strip club and watches middle-aged hotheads pile hundred-dollar bills onto plush leather seats and carpeted floors, catcalling like the horny dogs they pretend not to be at the office.
Ramona quickly takes the innocent Destiny under her wing and teaches her to practice pride on the pole and unleash the strength she truly has to control these men. But Moves is not a rotten place run by dirty souls, and Destiny soon forges a bond with fellow strippers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) that grows into the unique family she never had.
Crime is never justifiable, but after the 2007–2008 Financial Crisis, Ramona devises a scheme to prey on the men whose minds go limp once they hit the club. She has a daughter, but because her boss denies her the time off to be with her, takes every bit of denial from the men above her as a personal injustice to herself as a mother, an employee, and a woman.
Lopez portrays Ramona with the sensuous class of a woman dripping with confidence, yet somehow manages to instill a pillar of motherly dedication for her daughter and fellow strippers. In her best moments, she conveys the lifelong strain of a million injustices, endless poverty, and dangerous hurt. I was worried when I saw the trailer to this film that Ramona would simply buy a yacht, brandish her jewelry, and become a despicable character. But Lopez taps into the heart of Ramona’s pain, and like all great crime stories, becomes the tragic figure you almost want to win when shit goes wrong.
When things go well, the group dances and sings and drinks. There’s one too-many slow-motion sequences for it to be totally compelling, and often the editing lavishes in those Martin Scorsese montages where violence, sex, and drugs become cool stylish screengrabs.
But for how much time the film covers it never loses sight of the story, and the style never overblows it. Wu anchors the film with a concentrated, dynamic performance. In one scene, she is a loveable newbie tiptoeing her way into a corrupt underworld; in the next, she commands a crew of heartbreakers to slip powder into men’s whiskey.
By far my favorite scene with Destiny occurs when, after a successful night of drugging and stealing, she receives a call from the man she robbed pleading to explain herself and return his money. If she doesn’t, he won’t be able to provide child support for the son he’s already lost custody of. Destiny shakes with the phone in her hand, and that wonderful glimpse of “Oh shit, we’re in over our heads” unravels like Charlize Theron’s in Monster when she realizes how grisly her crimes have become.
I love moments like that, and Hustlers does a pretty good job unspooling the consequences to these women’s crimes. It does an equally impressive job elaborating on why they did it, and an even better job expressing the cruel split between men and women in the work force, social institutions, and in cultural circles without beating me over the head with it.
There’s some character moments I wish they expanded (namely, the time Ramona spends with her daughter or any time Destiny sees her mother), but enough existed to keep my interest. There’s much here to keep anyone’s interest in this entertaining crime drama.