Hustlers movie cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart
Hustlers movie director: Lorene Scafaria
Hustlers movie ratings: 3 stars
There is a moment in Hustlers when Lopez, her golden-brown skin bathed in neon lights, sheathed in a tiny sequinned G-string and a giant fur coat, enjoying a leisurely smoke on the roof of a strip club, opens the folds of her jacket to nestle a new girl in. That brief scene, warm and hot, all at the same time, could have been this film. About women who have bent the rules of the game their way, while holding each other up.
The clip between Lopez’s Ramona and Wu’s Destiny slips in while we are still breathless from the exhilaration of watching Lopez do a turn around a strip pole. It’s a bold and uninhibited performance as Ramona swirls, climbs, slides, twirls and almost flies around that steel, while the jaws of the audience drop and the dollars pour in. This role of a sexy performer is perfect for the actor with undeniable charisma, and Lopez owns Hustlers from that moment.
But the film is too timid to return the generosity. Inspired by a New York Magazine article about a group of strippers who managed to con Wall Street guys for a couple of years running, this film written and directed by Scafaria wants its women to be “cons” but for all the “right” reasons — a child to support, an ailing grandmother, an imprisoned fiancee, unsupportive parents. Nothing wrong with having them aspire for furs, pearls and diamonds, but Louboutins really do not go well with Lehmann Brothers if your message is “greed is bad”, especially of the Wall Street kind.
The point keeps being emphasised, off and on, as we follow essentially Destiny from the time she takes her first hesitant steps into that strip club, puts up with demands of men moulded seemingly out of the same clay, sees her money dwindle to almost nothing as she shares the proceeds with those who run the club, to when Ramona takes her under her wing and her fortunes change. The moment of crisis in the film is the 2008 market collapse, leaving their customers without cash to throw around, and requiring the girls to re-invent. A single mother by then, Destiny eventually falls in with Ramona’s all-girls scheme of fleecing (really stupid) men by slipping drugs into their drinks and maxing out their credit cards. They gamble that the men won’t go to police and, for the longest part, they don’t.
While Hustlers is focused on the women, particularly behind the scenes at the strip club, it’s refreshing. The women are there with all their skin, breasts, buttocks, smarts and warts, showing, bound together by an unjudgmental eye and an easy camaraderie. While Cardie B shows up, even here, in her striking presence, Lopez is the embodiment of the energy, aspiration and confidence in that room.
When the story progresses, to the schemes and the scammed men, a journalist putting the story together, and the women reeling in money but also trying to explain it away as a necessary evil, it starts becoming repetitive and loses its verve. Having Destiny at the centre of it all doesn’t help. While Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) is good, a film like Hustlers requires a Ramona to shine. Plus, she has the film’s best line, whatever the fuzzy politics behind it: “This whole country is a strip club. There are people tossing money and people doing the dance.”