Early in Hustlers, there is a crystallizing moment where student meets teacher for the first time. While Constance Wu’s Destiny and Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona have technically shared the screen before now, this is the scene where the new girl sees the nightclub’s reigning queen bee as a potential friend and likely mentor. It’s also the first time in ages audiences have glimpsed Jennifer Lopez, the terrific actor, instead of the movie star.
Wrapped in a mink on a wintry Manhattan night, and sitting atop the roof above her glossy dominion, Ramona invites the freezing Destiny into her furs and the audience into the warmth of this movie’s deceptively breezy folds. In an idealized world, Ramona could be a mother and confidante to Destiny, and Hustlers could be a revenge fantasy where exotic dancers and the female bodies commodified by their industry—both in clubs and multiplexes—beat the system. But the intelligence of Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay and direction is more nuanced than that.
This is the beginning of a complicated and constantly evolving friendship between two women whose relationship is always in flux, and whose movie surpasses all expectations. Not only does this quick-witted and slickly crafted feature avoid the obvious pitfalls of the male gaze inherent in a premise about strippers taking back from the biggest takers in the country, but it is also a superb thriller and easily the best crime drama of 2019 so far.
Based on a true story and the New York Magazine article it inspired, Hustlers provides a robust and giddy account of how a handful of strippers established a crime ring where they drugged Wall Street bros in order to get them to spend tens of thousands of dollars a night in a club that would then give the enterprising women a percentage. But beyond the sordid details, Scafaria casts her adventure as a narrative about women who are literally objectified, complete with dollar amounts, now finding a way to aggressively disrupt the market with maximum ingenuity.
Spanning from 2007 to 2014, the story opens during the “good ol’ days” of the mid-2000s. Back then celebrities were showing up at the club, and the money was flowing because Wall Street came through the door every night. But when the economy implodes in 2008, Wall Streeters get bailed out while Destiny and half of her club get sacked. A few years later, she’s now a single mother supporting herself via minimum wage jobs and facing the prospect of dancing for clients who expect sexual favors. Hence she barely hesitates when Ramona comes back into her life as an old friend with a new scheme: drop a little powder in an easy mark’s drink at one club and then take them to another where they’ll all get paid.
Ramona has already established a new fiefdom with this plan alongside sisterly recruits Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), but she is eager to bring her first protégé into the circle. The movie makes it clear that this is all going to end badly, as it is being recounted in 2014 by Wu’s now suburban Destiny, who speaks to a journalist (Julia Stiles) with the regret and faint pride of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill. But until the third act comedown, the high of these ladies living it up in their Upper East Side perches is intoxicating stuff.
Hustlers is a classic crime parable where audiences are invited to cheer on the misdeeds of the “wrong” side of the law, which is made especially easy in Scafaria’s hands. There have been many Wall Street movies that include strippers and sex workers as background filler or punchlines; these can range from Martin Scorsese’s intentionally debauched The Wolf of Wall Street—where the line between documentation and exploitation is intentionally blurred—to even Hustlers producer Adam McKay’s own The Big Short, which might be the definitive cinematic tragi-comedy about the housing crisis. Rarely though are women treated as more than men’s playthings. So it is a delicious irony that Hustlers fits right alongside those other defining post-financial crisis movies when it’s told from the perspective of the “entertainment” taking the Visa card away.
It is with this canniness that Scafaria handily avoids the potential lustiness of most Hollywood productions about exotic dancers and sex workers. Yes, there is some nudity, but Scafaria’s camera is uninterested in noting this as anything but a fact of life for the women making ends meet, and those lives are what actually matters. While only Ramona and Destiny are developed with a fair amount of depth, all four of the central players present a female camaraderie that is infectious but never simplistic or romanticized. This is a business arrangement among colleagues that becomes more complicated when it’s time for expansion. There is love and espousals of sisterhood, but there is also a complexity and sense of impermanence.
The director frames these tensions with a deft hand that revels in the glitter expected with a story about seductive performers. But other than a hell of an introduction number for Ms. Lopez, Scafaria prefers the push and pull of a heist movie gone wrong. There is more Soderbergh influence here than Verhoeven; there is also genuine invention like the scene where one of the women starts wearing a wire to rat on her associates, and the movie’s audio becomes canned, scratchy, and just engrossingly frustrating enough to cause the viewer to lean forward in their seat… and into the movie’s wider come-ons.
The veneer is so shiny it risks becoming blinding. Obviously Destiny will confess some mistakes—like when they have to drive a drugged mark to the hospital because he tried to jump from his roof to the pool—but by and large, there’s the sense the movie is pulling punches from the darker corners of these characters’ lifestyle. While Mercedes and Annabella have little at all to do other than follow the ringleaders, we unfortunately only get thin glimpses into Ramona and Destiny’s personal lives. You might not even notice the dirt under the fingernails until the denouement.
Additionally, while all the actors are solid (and Cardi B and Lizzo are wisely kept to glorified cameos), only Lopez gets to dominate the screen. In her best performance since Out of Sight, if not ever, Lopez is a captivating presence occupying a gray area between maternal concern and the opportunism of a hungry CEO. She exudes the charisma that early in her career drew the attention of filmmakers like Soderbergh, and now makes good on it with the performance of her career.
Hustlers begins its set in theaters on Friday, Sept. 13.