In the ‘90s, we had dueling stripper movies Showgirls and Striptease. It says a lot that Showgirls is considered both the more accurate and the higher quality film. I don’t mean to set such a low bar for Hustlers. It compares favorably to good movies too, and it’s one of Jennifer Lopez’s best. Hustlers succeeds because it’s not aiming for titillation, and it helps there was a compelling true story behind it.
Jennifer Lopez et al. play real ‘Hustlers’
Hustlers is based on the Jessica Pressler article “The Hustlers at Scores” about strippers who ran a crime ring drugging men and stealing their money via high limit credit cards. The film says it is “inspired by a true story” so the events portrayed in the film may be heightened, but it still ends with text cards saying what happened to every character after the events of the film.
Destiny (Constance Wu) works the joyless grind trying to drum up VIP dances in the club. Even when she has a good night, everyone takes a cut. Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) teaches Dorothy some acrobatic pole moves, and how to spot the Wall Street types with the most money to spend.
Hustlers has a Goodfellas/Wolf of Wall Street methodology, teaching the audience how strip clubs work, how Wall Street guys operate, and more once Ramona gets in deeper. It’s sort of Destiny’s Training Day although it lasts more than 24 hours. Jennifer Lopez has the Denzel Washington corrupt mentor role.
Any industry can be made fascinating when you make it cinematic. Writer/director Lorene Scarafia doesn’t coast on the glamorous world of dancers, moneymen, parties and shopping sprees. She highlights the ingenuity Ramona brings to her niche.
‘Hustlers’ crosses the line
When the economic crisis hit in 2008, the bubble burst for everyone. We don’t often think of the underground businesses that dried up too. If everyone lost all their money, nobody can afford to go to a strip club either, and there are dancers who depended on that steady clientele. So Ramona finds her own customers.
Romona, Destiny, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) start fishing guys off the street, getting them drunk at a bar and then suggesting the strip club where they can charge VIP dances to their credit cards. Ramona also drugs the guys with Ketamine and MDMA. That’s where I feel she crosses the line, and everyone may have their own lines.
I don’t have a problem with fishing guys off the street. Then it’s their call if they want to go out with these strangers, but the movie shows many guys bail when Ramona pushes too hard. Once she brings drugs into it, she’s no longer working the guys. She’s just stealing.
She targets Wall Street types, blaming them for stealing from people and putting others out of work, but that’s like Death Wish where Paul Kersey goes after random muggers but not the actual ones who attacked his family. She’s a financial vigilante.
Jennifer Lopez has fun being bad in ‘Hustlers’
Like all great crime movies, Hustlers is fun even as the crime gets more serious. The film addresses the danger and morality of drugging people, regardless of the theft, with levity. Ramona and Destiny suffer too through their trial and error of cooking up the right roofie mix. Guys get more aggressive, which is the danger of leaving the safety of a club with bouncers.
The system of the con only grows more fascinating as Ramona talks down guys who call her after they see their credit card statement. What are they going to do, let their wives know how they charged so much money? The dancers have clever ways of learning personal information for passwords and security questions too, although I think most of the guys would be smart enough not to answer if they were sober.
The downfall of the ‘Hustlers’ is the most poignant
In most of these crime stories, the system is perfect and it’s only the criminals’ greed and hubris that bring them down. Henry Hill got high off his own product. The Casino gangsters made too much noise. They could’ve kept operating under the radar if they’d stopped picking fights. Ramona’s scam was never sustainable.
With a scam like hers, each client could only be fleeced once. They’re not going to keep coming back. Ramona’s ultimately going to run out of clients, or potentially fleece everyone in New York until there’s no one left. Every scenario in Hustlers is temporary, and then Ramona comes up with a new system to adjust. Jealousy and betrayal threaten her crew too, but this was never built to last even if everybody was completely humble and well-adjusted.
I see relevant parallels between Ramona’s scam and the scam against which she was fighting. The economic crisis happened because Wall Street’s investments schemes and the subprime mortgage industry were not sustainable. Likewise, Ramona’s retaliation was not sustainable. She could only make a quick buck before the bubble burst for her too.
The female gaze of ‘Hustlers’
Hustlers is a sexy movie. There are beautiful women who trained hard to perform acrobatic dance moves. The fact that a woman directed it makes Hustlers unique to 99% of all the other stripper movies ever made (although Katt Shea is also in the 1% for Stripped to Kill). I’m probably not qualified to definitively articulate the differences, but I definitely noticed a female eye on the ladies.
Scafaria’s strip club scenes are about the movement, the beauty of the women, not seeing the naked parts. The most glamorous shot in the movie is Ramona taking a smoke break on the roof shrouded in fur. Scafaria films the women entering every room in slow motion. It honestly makes me feel better about admiring them. I can feel secure I’m not taking part in exploiting Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer or Lili Reinhart while watching Hustlers.
Where’s Cardi B in ‘Hustlers’
A word of caution to Cardi B fans. She’s all over the trailers, and that consists of most of her screen time. She and Lizzo are very much cameos in Hustlers. They’re good accents to the film, but Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart are the stars.
If you are a fan of any of these women, or of women in general, or of people doing interesting things, Hustlers is a compelling crime story. Even if you do your homework and read about how the story ended, it’s still worth the ride.