The house lights go down. The stage lights shine like stars, silhouetting a body — not just a body, but the body. The one everybody, man or woman, wants. A soft beat, a smooth bass line and an angry piano play as the dancer hooks her ankle around the pole. Fiona Apple sings, her voice sultry and her words mockingly prophetic:
I’ve been a bad, bad girl
I’ve been careless with a delicate man
And it’s a sad, sad world
When a girl will break a boy
Just because she can.
Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) finishes her dance with a bouquet of ones in her hand. Coming off the stage, she passes by Destiny (Constance Wu), a dancer new to the club who, like the rest of us, has been watching Ramona in awe. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Ramona asks with a grin on her face. She walks away without a backward glance. She already knows the answer.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Ramona’s introduction in Hustlers is one of the best in recent memory or that, in one short sequence, it exemplifies everything about Hustlers that is more thoughtful and proficient than your average “bitches get shit done” flick. Hell, make that your average gangster flick, too. Hustlers, with its exclusively female gaze, gets right what so many female-empowerment and / or crime movies get wrong.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on Jessica Pressler’s article The Hustlers at Scores for The Cut, Hustlers is not precisely a revenge story or a Robin Hood story. It’s more of a post-2008 financial crash survival story, as nuanced as the women it portrays. Women who, yes, happen to be strippers and, yes, just happen to drug Wall Street fuckboys out of their corruptly-earned money. Insert obligatory “boo hoo” here.
There’s no judgment to be had in Hustlers of either the women’s occupations or of their crimes, but we’ll get to that bit later. Scafaria smartly situates the first act of the film — the pre-2008 portion, when the strippers didn’t have to do much more than evoke a sob story or play upon girl-on-girl fantasies to get the big bucks out of their regulars — as equal parts joyful and glamorous. (And humorous: Shout-out to Lizzo’s flute and Cardi B’s “boyfriend!”) Here, at least, the women are not exploited so much as they are in on the scam: These morally bankrupt Wall Street guys have money to burn, and it feels good to light the match. And it feels even better to do it with someone you trust at your back.
For Destiny, that’s Ramona. Ramona is a rarity among the dancers — experienced enough to know everything there is to know about her profession and wise enough to share that knowledge when she generously takes her co-workers under her wing. The math is simple: The better dancers (and grifters) they are, the more money everyone makes. There’s no room for mean girls in Ramona’s world. You either take care of each other or you all go home with empty pockets.
Destiny and Ramona’s professional partnership blossoms into something more familial. Before the crash, they think of each other as sisters, and it takes some time for them to remember that after the crash — or, more accurately, after Destiny quits dancing when she finds out she’s pregnant. (“I hope it’s a boy,” Destiny says, her reasons unspoken but obvious to any woman who has lived in this world, before editor Kayla Emter delivers a devastating smash-cut to a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl in pigtails. A brilliant moment.)
While the isolation of new motherhood is certainly implied, another one of its side effects is touched upon earlier in the film (and then, crucially, much later): “Motherhood is a mental illness,” Ramona quips to Destiny. A single mom herself, she explains that there’s nothing she wouldn’t do to give her daughter choices. Not just “anything,” but specifically choices, the simplest thing that is so often robbed from women. That’s why she does what she does. And that’s why Destiny goes back to it, three years later, returning to an uglier and more cutthroat world than she remembers.
And thus, the crimes. Everything I’ve explained so far (which Destiny explains to a reporter played by Julia Stiles in a familiar but well-utilized framing device) is vital to understanding the crimes themselves. Ramona, Destiny and their expanding crew (including top-notch supporting turns from Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) don’t give their marks MDMA and ketamine so they won’t remember the night their credit cards are maxed out (“just a sprinkle” can do quite a lot) out of spite or revenge or even greed. They do it to take care of themselves and their families — at least at first. The hustle grows and grows, and things get out of control, as they so often do. Then everyone has to live with the consequences.
The thing about Destiny and Ramona’s crimes is that, without much hand-holding, you get it. It’s easy to understand why they did what they did, how they got away with it for so long and why you still root for them when it’s all over. It’s partially why we always root for criminals in films; we just love it when somebody smart gets one over on somebody who deserves it. And who deserves it more than the men who singlehandedly toppled America’s finances in 2008? Most of us still haven’t recovered from that.
But there’s something more to it. Elaine Lui has said that Hustlers should be talked about in the same breath as GoodFellas — that it’s as good as that classic gangster film and better than The Wolf of Wall Street and should therefore get the same prestige treatment come Oscar season. Time will only tell if this comes to pass; last year, as with almost every year previous, not a single film directed by a woman was nominated for Best Picture.
I agree with Lui’s general statement, but I would even go a step further. Hustlers is better than both GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street and other films of that ilk because it never asks you to empathize with and support the worst kind of people humanity has to offer. Those people — those men — do what they do not just for money, drugs, and women (though it’s certainly a bonus for them). They do it to make themselves feel more powerful than they are, and that’s the oldest, most boring story in the book. But women? “Women are the original hustlers,” Lui says, and women have always had to hustle as a way to get around men. That’s a familiar story too, but it’s not one that makes you feel gross when you watch it. It makes you feel seen.
The story of Hustlers would be impressive enough on its own, but it’s backed by some truly excellent filmmaking on Scafaria’s part. Her knack for storytelling is energetic and refreshing, and it’s amplified by a Tarantino-level instinct for soundtrack choices. In this, the age of obnoxious needle-drops, it seems rarer and rarer that a movie’s soundtrack purposefully reflects its thesis. Hustlers’s soundtrack does that and then some. Part time capsule and part tongue-in-cheek commentary, every pivotal scene has a song attached to it that raises it from simply good to instantly iconic. “Control” by Janet Jackson. The aforementioned “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. “Gimme More” by Britney Spears. “Royals” by Lorde. You’ll never be able to listen to those songs without thinking of this movie ever again.
You’ll also never look at Lopez the same way again. She has been proving her acting chops since 1997’s Selena, but Ramona feels like the role she was destined from birth to play — and it’s a role she couldn’t have done any time but now. With 20 years of accomplishments behind her, Lopez has earned the confidence with which she swaggers through this movie and the generosity she gives to her scene partners (including, bafflingly, Councilman Jamm from Parks & Recreation), particularly Constance Wu.
Along that same line, Ramona and Destiny’s friendship often seems intentionally meta, as there is no doubt that the more seasoned Lopez is in her own way mentoring the newly minted leading lady in Wu. And here’s the real mark of Lopez’s talent: Just like Ramona treats Destiny, she never treats Wu as anything less than her equal. They’re sisters, from the moment they meet until the moment they say goodbye.
Late in the movie, Destiny theorizes that the reason why the women committed their crimes was because “hurt people hurt people.” That may be the case, but the real moral of the story is this: Successful women support other women. And you know what? Fuck any man who happens to get in their way.