The opening scenes in “Hustlers” are pure camp. After a rough first day attempting to make money dancing for men, Constance Wu’s character Destiny sees a vision in neon lights. Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez, enters stage right. She proceeds to perform a five-minute strip tease that women half her age would struggle to manage before rolling around on the floor, bathing in money. As she exits the stage clutching a giant wad of bills to her chest, she looks at the flabbergasted newbie and whispers: “Doesn’t money make you horny?”
In the wrong hands, this would be the start of a film no one’s career would walk away from.
In the wrong hands, this would be the start of a film no one’s career would walk away from. A dash too much self-seriousness, a teaspoon less self-awareness, and the entire project would have crashed and burned. But under the guidance of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, with the help of the indomitable Jennifer Lopez, this is not the beginning of a “Showgirls” redux. Rather, it is a thesis statement about America’s conspicuous consumption at the height of the Wall Street bubble. “Hustlers” is here to celebrate those outsiders who reached out for the brass ring of our corrupt capitalist system and took what they wanted without apology or explanation. Sure, these hustlers were committing credit card fraud and drugging their marks. It’s an ugly system, and nobody who wants to be rich gets there cleanly.
Inspired by a true story written up in New York Magazine, Lopez’s character Ramona picks Destiny to join her in what is the beginning of a beautiful yet twisted friendship. Already older than most of her dancing coworkers, she believes Destiny will do well among the high rollers in the private rooms upstairs.
As both women ride an increasingly lucrative wave, first of the economy’s making and then of their own, they swing between joyous shopping sprees and physical and emotional violence. That’s one of the reasons “Hustlers” works, the acknowledgement that these women — their attachments, their feelings, their choices — are complicated, messy and often awful. This is not a film about clichés; indeed, as adds more women to the pot, most notably Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart as co-conspirators Mercedes and Annabelle, it becomes more layered. Even after the 2008 crash, these women push on, motivated by emotions they may never be able to fully articulate even as they fall deeper down the rabbit hole of the scam.
This is a talented ensemble cast. But of the four main actresses, it’s Lopez who is the most mesmerizing. She’s come a long way from “In Living Color,” in the process passing through every possible celebrity permutation, from pop star to style mogul to paparazzi favorite, with bouts of acting and reality TV stardom in between. Now, having recently turned 50, Lopez seems to have reached another level; this is the role she was born to play. As the great Beyoncé wisely said: “A diva is a female version of a hustler.” Lopez is here to hustle you from start to finish.
And this is where the film’s other secret weapon comes in — its intense self-awareness. The media kerfuffle over Wu’s alleged diva reputation is part of it, as are the long and seemingly purposeful shots of Lopez walking in a black velour tracksuit hoodie, “Juicy” floating right above her butt. How can we not recall Lopez’s role in making such clothing the hottest couture of the mid-2000s: The boots in her “Jenny from the Block” video, the tracksuits that were such a stable of her paparazzi photos. Lopez the real-life superstar made these looks aspirational, so that women like Ramona wanted to copy them. It’s utterly meta and absolutely on point.
The businessmen with the corporate accounts think they are in control, when really their cards are being maxed out, first at clubs, then at hotels and finally by Ramona and Destiny in a car waiting outside. They say the patriarchy hurts everyone, and Ramona’s plan relies on men both behaving badly — and feeling that losing the money is better than facing the humiliation of the truth. Indeed it took a man with nothing to lose, not even his pride, to finally blow the whistle on these scammers. And snarky detectives made him pay for it, even as the true scope of the scheme became apparent.
Clearly, these women are not heroes, but they are empowered in their own way. We know from the outset their crime spree can’t last forever, and yet, as reporter Elizabeth (Julia Styles) admits, none of us feel too sorry for these men they defrauded. Most of these marks were all too happy to treat these women like crap when the power tables were turned. That’s capitalism, baby, and they’re just participating. Get in loser, we’re going shopping. It’ll be glorious while it lasts.