“These Wall Street guys, you see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything and not one of these douchebags went to jail.” – Ramona (Jennifer Lopez)
Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Madoff – Wall Street 2007 was a different time. Investment bankers, CEOs, and other Wall Street executives seemed to be indulging in cocaine and women, throwing around crisp hundred dollar bills, swiping their company credit cards every second. We’ve seen the men of Wall Street countless times in movies. We know the behavior. We know what happened.
Enter Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers.” Bravo to Scafaria for taking the original story that appeared in New York Magazine and turning it into this brilliant electrifying film about women and the strip club industry.
Sometime in 2007, Constance Wu’s Destiny shows up for work at a Manhattan strip bar. Take note of Janet Jackson’s “Control” playing and its lyrics:
“This is story about control
My control Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I’m gonna do it my way
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
I am ‘Cause it’s all about control,
And I’ve got lots of it” Jackson sings.
Destiny doesn’t have it yet. She’s the new kid on the block. She barely makes ends meet from the dollars thrown at her as she gyrates on the pole. The clubs get a cut and she has loose change to take home to her ailing grandmother. Neither Destiny nor the other women she knows make much money and they don’t have much control. But all that is about to change.
Enter Jennifer Lopez – and it’s a grand entrance. Lopez plays Ramona. She oozes attitude, allure, and a killer body. She carries herself with a fierce determination. She dazzles and sizzles as the men drool over her, throwing their wads of cash at her. She’s the one the men come to watch and salivate over. Destiny watches in awe as we all do.
Shortly after the grand entrance, Destiny follows Ramona to the rooftop and Ramona opens up her fur coat – her cape – taking Destiny under her wing. Ramona is the perfect mentor and “superhero” to Destiny. Ramona teaches Destiny all the moves. She teaches her about the club. In a hilarious sequence featuring Cardi B and Lopez, they teach Destiny how to straddle a man’s lap. “That’s a dollar right there.” She teaches her about the men of Wall Street. Ramona knows the game.
Ramona and Destiny team up to hustle from the greed that is Wall Street to change their own lives. This is where Scafaria delivers a film that gives us a look at the crime/hustle genre in a way that is thoroughly refreshing and packed with emotional heart. There’s stripping, there are drugs, there’s debauchery, and there are sleazy guys. These men aren’t saints. They’re cheating on their wives. They are greedy. They’re ridiculous and paying $300 for a blow job.
And there are the women. Ramona has a daughter, a daughter Ramona wants to be able to send to any college she wants. Destiny, as we know, has her ailing grandmother. As they form a bond, a friendship, we know it’s eventually going to shatter into a million pieces. They make money, they shop extravagantly – everything is a label, but at the end of the day, they support their families and they take care of themselves.
After the crash of 2008, things changed and the club scene changed. Ramona has survivor instinct and comes up with the next hustle – she’s got to pay for things. Working in Old Navy isn’t going to cut it for her, not when her boss gives zero fucks about her childcare issues for the rest of the school year as he stuffs his face with a sub.
The next hustle is big and flirts with danger. These Wall Street guys still have platinum business cards at their disposal. Ramona, Destiny, and the new recruits step up their game. Men are lured. Drinks are laced. The men are moved to clubs and cards are maxed.
But it’s the women who end up getting into trouble for drugging the men and for scamming them.
There’s a beautiful moment where Destiny takes the plea after being caught. Ramona freaks out, but in a moment realizes why she did it. She did it for the kid. Ramona understands. She understands why Destiny did what she did. She did it too, herself. She took control. The women took control.
*Flashback Janet Jackson* This is “Hustlers,” a film where the women take control of themselves, their destiny, and take control from the men who dominate their lives.
Scafaria captures this risky interplay and with a script that lets us understand where these women are coming from. She gives Wu, Lopez, and Lily Reinhart the cards they need to go forth and deliver the incredible performances they do.
This is a stellar all-around cast. Cardi-B and Lizzo deliver surprising turns, and I would have loved to have seen more of them. There is no shortage of laughs, but there’s no shortage of the heart in this film. There’s a poignant moment when Ramona wonders if their lives would have turned out differently had she and Destiny met when they were young.
Hustlers is a fuck you to the “douchebags” who never went to jail. It tells the story of women who watch the predators, women who refuse to be prey. It’s written by a woman and directed by a woman. We’ve seen countless Wall Street movies and I love every single one of them, but this, with its diverse and superb cast, and a female gaze on the world of stripping, makes this electrifying.
And what of Lopez? That’s who the spotlight is on … the buzz.
I’ve followed Lopez throughout her career from being a fly girl to “Selena” through “Shades of Blue,” judging on “American Idol” and the guest appearances on “Will & Grace.” There’s no doubt that Lopez can do comedy, drama, and sing. She is a performer and never gives anything but 100%. But this performance is the culmination of over 20 years of acting, something fans of her film work have yearned for. It’s been a while since we’ve been building up to this great climax of a performance that sears as hot as it can. She unleashes and unpacks a performance that sizzles from that hypnotic entrance to that last empowering “fuck you.” Lopez is stunning. It is not just Lopez at her best – it is Lopez at her career best. Hustlers is a sexy grade-A thriller that dances with danger and gambles to win. Its a hot ticket to neon nightlife, worth every cent of the cost of admission, with candy and popcorn too.