Hustlers can barely contain J. Lo
“Doesn’t money make you horny?”
So asks Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the veteran exotic dancer who has just finished doing a titillating, tremendously athletic pole dance while hordes of rich Wall Street suits shower her in an offensive amount of cash. She writhes in the piles of legal tender, stopping only to rub the bills on her body and toss them aside with abandon. It’s maybe two minutes of work, and she walks away with thousands of dollars. It’s no wonder that our hero, Destiny (Constance Wu) has immediately fallen under Ramona’s spell. As the new girl at the club, Destiny doesn’t make a lot of money. Between fighting for mirror space in the dressing room and paying off the many hands that dip into her take, Destiny feels like she’s fighting an uphill battle with no end in sight. But to answer Ramona’s question, yes. Yes, money does make her horny.
No, she’s not sexually attracted to cash, but she is obsessed with what it represents. They say money can’t buy happiness, but the fact of the matter is that it can buy contentment. If you’ve got enough of it, it can also buy comfort. And the combination of contentment and comfort sure does feel a lot like happiness, doesn’t it?
Luckily for Destiny, Ramona takes a shine to her, and she offers the young dancer a spot under her wing. It’s a maternal gesture represented in a literal sense by Ramona offering the scantily clad Destiny a bit of warmth under her expensive fur coat as the two share a smoke break after work. It’s a nice moment between the two women, but its one that Destiny, we soon find out, doubts the veracity of. You see, in the present day, Destiny is relating her story to a journalist (Julia Stiles), who ostensibly is in the process of writing the very article upon which this film is based.
This framing device sets up the film nicely, offering a bit of mystery to those unfamiliar with the story. Just what happened between these two dancers that caused Destiny to doubt Ramona’s character? Well, a lot.
Once again we move back to 2007, and while in Ramona’s care, Destiny has started to make some serious cash, while also learning the shady (albeit perfectly legal) ways by which a dancer can raise her take exponentially. Remember, this is all occurring in the months prior to the financial crisis of 2008, at a time when number crunchers and deal makers on Wall Street were rolling in ill-gotten dough. Dough that burns holes in even the most impeccably-tailored suit pockets. Ramona knows that a flash of skin, a flip of her hair, and a little bit of smooth talking can loosen the wallets of just about any one of these dudes, and once she gets her hands on their credit card, there’s no end to the amount of legal-yet-forceful ways she and her coworkers can run up the bill.
“They would do this anyway. We’re just helping them do it.”
The logic is sound, and frankly, screw those guys. Their greed held a nation hostage in a big way. Who cares if some of their money ends up in the pockets of someone who needs it, right? Right?
Enter 2008. With so many Wall Streeters out of a job, the cash flow into the nightclub scene has pretty much dried up, and now both Ramona and Destiny need to work a little harder to get the remaining customers to spend money. The solution is easy: drug them and take them for all they are worth.
Functionally, Hustlers is similar to American Animals, in that it’s a semi-stylish retelling of a contemporary true crime incident that attempts to explore the motivations of those embroiled within it. Hustlers has a bit more visual panache to it courtesy of director Lorene Scafaria, and as such, it ends up feeling like Scorsese-lite. As the story grows and the cast expands, we start to feel this criminal empire grow unwieldy, much the way we do when watching the Goodfellas crew post-airport heist. Also similar is the dread which hangs over the main narrative. We know something is about to go terribly wrong, we just don’t know when, how, or who it will affect most.
Where Hustlers falls is in reconciling the ethical concerns of the story. It shows shades of contending with the idea that these women are drugging and robbing unsuspecting customers, but never commits to a full exploration of it. The film moralizes it as “well, these guys were pretty bad to begin with,” which is undeniably true, but in a post-Cosby world, the idea of drugging someone’s drink demands to be taken seriously. To be fair, Hustlers does not owe the audience an editorial angle, but in avoiding the opportunity to dig deeper the film leaves its mostly compelling characters incomplete. Anytime it starts to feel like the characters are going to work through the moral nuance of their actions, the film immediately strays away. Nonetheless, up until this point, it does a great job of walking the line between depiction and advocacy. But by the end of the film it feels somewhat closer to the latter. Leaving this material on the floor hurts the pacing a bit too. I suspect this is due to the film’s main stumbling point: it’s trying to deliver a fresh, atypical role for Jennifer Lopez, while also keeping its foot in the door of her general audience (the Maid in Manhattan crowd, if you will). Yes, this movie has Jennifer Lopez in it, but no, this is not what one could consider a “Jennifer Lopez movie.”
The thing is, J-Lo is undoubtedly in the hardcore crime movie that Hustlers aaaaaalmost is. From the moment she steps into frame, she’s an unstoppable force. From her opening dance number all the way through her ill-advised caper, she’s doing tremendous work to give us a nuanced, challenging performance that seduces you, draws you in, simmers, and explodes. She’s so good that it almost eclipses Constance Wu’s equally challenging performance as Destiny. Writing quibbles aside, these two women are doing award-worthy work and making it look easy.
The supporting cast, featuring comical turns from both Cardi B and Lizzo, all do great work, but unfortunately, their characters are often lost in the mix. So much goes on with such a large rotating cast of characters, that even the more heavily featured players fail to establish an identity. Nonetheless, when the group is having around shooting the shit, the chemistry is on point, and I am reminded of how rare and exciting it is to see women on screen socializing with one another in unguarded ways. It rules.
Hustlers opens in Philly theaters today.