A 2015 New York magazine article provides the source material for Hustlers, the story of how, after the 2008 financial crash took a toll on their livelihoods, a team of strippers organised to scam big-shot Wall Street bankers out of huge sums of money. At the heart of this unlikely sisterhood is the relationship between Ramona (Jennifer Lopez in an Oscar-tipped role) and newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu), as they navigate the heights and lows life throws their way.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria opts for a narrative style reminiscent of the Oceans film, intercutting the retelling of events with scenes in the present, where journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) is interviewing Destiny about the ins and outs of the women’s operation. This works well to keep the audience in suspense, since even in its most joyful, glamorous moments, the film reminds us that it won’t stay that way.
Destiny, often the narrator and the protagonist, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a relative newcomer to the industry, and her development is well-developed throughout, if not a little corny – she works the pole in the name of her grandmother, if you can believe it.
This is arguably J-Lo’s career highlight as she not only proves her often-underrated acting ability, but projects protectiveness, confidence and tenderness. Though Hustlers might not be an Oscar Best Pictures winner, it has a clever, incisive premise which enacts the fantasies of a society hungry for revenge against the kind of men who fall victim to these women’s actions.
At times, the film is bittersweet: while these men are rich, they are not criminals, and their only crimes are greed and a lack of compassion. However, the female-heavy audiences likely to be drawn to this film will undoubtedly have had a run in with men like these, who believe that money can buy them anything – it’s no stretch for the whole thing to seem justifiable.
The moral of this film is questionable, to be sure, but watching it play out now, in an era that gives us the like of Donald Trump in the highest annals of power, you can’t help but root for these women to get away with it. Some of it goes way over the top, though, particularly during a scene where one of the drugged men jumps off the roof naked, causing chaos and panic among the women, who rush him to hospital in such slapstick fashion that it Weekend at Bernie’s look like serious drama.
Hustlers also sets up a number of dominos that never fall, as is the case for an early montage explaining that there exists three different types of Wall Street guys. It certainly holds scenes that only made the final cut because they are fun to watch, rather than because they serve any narrative function. Fortunately, the rest of the script is smarter than that and often wickedly amusing, so the film can afford some missteps.
In essence, Scafaria presents a world where everything is about transactions, and in such a system, there is always a means for exploitation. These women might not be heroes, but neither is anyone else they come across. “The whole world is a strip club,” says Ramona in the final scene; some people throw the money, others dance. A damning statement from what we’ve seen, but one that will likely ring very true.
Hustlers is in cinemas now.