Don’t knock a hustler, they say, for doing whatever’s necessary to get ahead in a cruel, unjust world. If the system is rigged to benefit almost exclusively those at the top, who should begrudge an underdog for scraping and scheming his or her way up from the bottom? Certainly not the makers of the absorbing crime caper Hustlers (), a film that sides wholeheartedly with the underdogs in its ripped-from-the-headlines chronicle of the rise and fall of a crew of grifting strippers.
In other words, come for the thrill of watching J.Lo, Cardi B, Constance Wu, and company work a pole as dancers at Scores, and stay for the trenchant class and gender commentary as those dancers descend into a life of crime.
Although, the analysis doesn’t really cut that deep. The film isn’t much interested in probing why Wu’s character Dorothy, a smart working-class girl from Queens, is giving lap dances at Scores instead of working at a Chase or Starbucks. It’s a job, and, as the orphan caretaker of her ailing grandmother, Dorothy desperately needs the money, even if it entails submitting to the sundry degradations of grinding for strangers.
In the beginning, the money is so good that Dorothy, who goes by the name Destiny at the club, can overlook the drunk bros and pawing brokers, and the grasping managers who take a substantial cut of every dancer’s tips. There’s enough money flowing at the club that some nights it’s like a party for Destiny, Diamond (Cardi B), Liz (Lizzo), and all the ladies hustling from the stage to the champagne room. And in the beginning, Destiny has Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s star attraction, to show her the ropes — such as how to take home stacks of bills without sacrificing too much of herself for the pleasure of the male clientele.
Soon, Destiny’s earning enough to pull herself and her grandma out of debt and a couple of steps closer to comfortable. Life is good, more or less, until the crash hits. It’s 2008, and the Great Recession’s impact nearly devastates Scores as the bankers, brokers, and corporate barons who are the club’s bread and butter are all tapped out. The anxiety and desperation that gripped the nation casts a pall over the formerly wild party at Scores. Aware that her money-making days as an exotic dancer are numbered, and seeing her sisters falling back into debt and despair, Ramona hatches a plan to take control of the situation. She enlists Destiny, and dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), in a scheme to scam the Scores clientele and put the ladies back on top.
Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article about the real-life case of the Scores girls scam, Hustlers adopts the rise-and-fall rhythm of a Goodfellas or other gangster fables. The story is told mostly in flashback, as Dorothy/Destiny recounts the crew’s crimes to the seemingly sympathetic magazine reporter Elizabeth, played by Julia Stiles.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria finesses the structure smoothly, darting between past and present, comedy and suspense, contrasting the noise and flash of Scores and the peace and quiet of Queens. The soundtrack, flush with beats-heavy hits of the mid-aughts, is an ideal score for the film’s umpteen sequences of Ramona and the girls slow-mo walking saucily in formation into battle. At the center of the whirlwind, the friendship between Ramona and Dorothy — a mentor-protégé bond that borders on maternal for the motherless Dorothy — grounds the film in a human drama that truly raises the stakes once the scam inevitably goes awry and things start to get ugly for the Scores crew. Unlike several of her costars, Wu does not exude the seductive appeal of a dancer who might score big at Scores, but she is more than convincing as a headstrong young woman who might allow her admiration for big sister Ramona to lead her down the dangerous path of committing felonies.
As Ramona, Lopez is tough, tart, and funny — and handles the tastefully sexy dancing like the former Fly Girl that her fans know and love. She and Wu share an affecting rapport that penetrates like nothing else the film attempts. In fact, the other characters, from Cardi’s no-nonsense Diamond to Palmer’s happy-go-lucky Mercedes and Reinhart’s sensitive Annabelle, are fairly tangential. Scafaria doesn’t invest screen-time in backstories or sob stories, leaving the impression that we’re only in this to see how Destiny and Ramona will fare in the end.
By the same token, the movie invests little concern in the fates of the Scores ladies’ victims. Hustlers doesn’t judge the women for choosing to make their money bumping and grinding in backrooms, but it definitely judges those men who frequent the club. They are wolves well-deserving of having the wool pulled over their eyes, callous capitalists who came close to bankrupting a nation. They have this fleecing coming to them, Ramona argues, and it’s hard to disagree that a little Robin Hood action isn’t just the right remedy for this broken system.
Hustlers is rated R, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, September 13.