“Come on, climb in my fur,” Ramona Vega (played by Jennifer Lopez), the imperious mother bear at a Manhattan strip club, commands her new hire, Destiny (Constance Wu). Ramona is perched on a rooftop, smoking a cigarette and luxuriating in an ostentatious coat. Though she’s surrounded by industrial pipes and vents, she somehow manages to radiate glamour as she wraps her new protégé in her fuzzy pelt. The world around them is grimy, but Ramona is comforting and sensational, and in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, she’s at the center of a scheme that might sound ludicrous if the audience hadn’t seen her looking so resplendent on that roof.
The film, based on Jessica Pressler’s New York article “The Hustlers at Scores,” follows Ramona, Destiny, and several other New York City strippers as they ride the boom times of Wall Street in the early 2000s and then scramble to stay in business after the 2008 recession. The movie accurately depicts that tumultuous era, but it’s also just a fabulous showbiz caper—a tale of excess and shifting power dynamics that’s packed with great lines and even greater performances. At the center of it all is Lopez, a superstar who so rarely gets to flex her acting muscles; I haven’t been this captivated by her on the big screen since her career-defining work in 1998’s Out of Sight.
Scafaria’s ingenious script first lays out the basics of the world, as Destiny tries to establish herself at a strip club dominated by Ramona and flooded with dollar-bill-waving finance goons. The screenplay could have been rife with backstabbing and betrayal, but once Ramona invites Destiny to curl up in her fur coat within the first 15 minutes, the film morphs into an amped-up celebration of friendship and sisterhood in a world marginalized by polite society. Then, when the market downturn hits and the horny stockbrokers stop visiting, Ramona and Destiny devise new, illegal ways to continue making money and end up presiding over a miniature criminal empire.
Hustlers would be fun enough if Ramona served as a preening villain who seduces Destiny into a life of ill repute. But Scafaria never takes the easy way out, never entirely tips the balance in one character’s favor or tuts at another’s immorality or misbehavior. Hustlers is set in a seedy world where every stakeholder—the businessmen running the strip clubs, and their venal counterparts who make up the clientele—already stands on shaky ethical ground. Scafaria illustrates the myriad ways Destiny and her friends are exploited by an industry that doesn’t value them as humans, and then lets viewers exult a little as they try to claw the power back, even if we know their success can’t last forever.
Ramona is the film’s emotional core: She is capable of callousness and has a short temper, but she’s also fiercely loyal and preternaturally bewitching. In recent years, Lopez has too often taken roles in movies such as Second Act and The Boy Next Door that lacked an edge, a sense of danger to complement her natural charm. From the moment when, minutes into Hustlers, she storms into the club accompanied by a period-appropriate soundtrack of danceable bangers, it’s hard not to fall under her sway, just as Destiny does. There’s no scorching romance at the heart of this narrative. The central love story is the one between these two friends, which is disrupted when the girls start drugging men and running up charges on their credit cards.
As the group (which includes Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, both giving wonderful performances) weaves its tangled web, the film could have pushed aside the fun digressions and celebrity cameos for a sober reminder that what Ramona and Destiny did was wrong. But Scafaria has enough respect for the audience not to lecture them. Her last movie, 2016’s The Meddler, had a similarly formulaic-sounding premise (a daughter is hassled by her dotty and controlling mother), yet it ignored obvious tropes in favor of warm characterization and emotional depth. Hustlers features too fine an ensemble to descend into moralizing. Instead, Scafaria reckons with the economic hardship Ramona and her crew faced, and how it pushed them to ignore the brutality of their actions.
Hustlers would work as a goofy comedy; it works even better as a thoughtful one, crammed with killer lines and supporting work from both acting veterans (Julia Stiles) and fresh faces (Cardi B). It’s a salute to extravagance that knows when to cut loose and when to hold on quiet, introspective beats. Ramona’s big fur coat is the silliest, most impractical kind of luxury, but it’s hard not to feel Destiny’s instant comfort once she’s swaddled in it. Hustlers is just that: a lush, lavish joy that’s difficult to forget.
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