An energetic entry in a current wave of what might be called Income Inequality Cinema — where the screwed-over working class fights for their piece of the 0.1% pie — “Hustlers” is an uneven but mostly entertaining tale of strippers exploiting their exploiters.
Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article about performers at New York City’s legendary Scores nightclub, the film represents a step up for director Lorene Scafaria, whose previous two theatrical features (“The Meddler” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) were well-cast but emotionally unsatisfying.
And whereas “The Meddler” seemed to love gleaming surfaces for their own sake (the film often resembled an advertisement for The Grove shopping center in L.A.), “Hustlers” cinematographer Todd Banhazi (Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer”) cannily intersperses the neon fantasy of the strip club and the magazine-spread sheen of upscale Manhattan apartments with a jolt of naturalist light in the rare moments that these nightclub nightcrawlers are out in the sunshine.
Wherever Scafaria’s script falls short — more on that in a moment — “Hustlers” is an exhilarating delivery system for one of Jennifer Lopez’s most dynamic film performances. An actress often ill-used on the big screen, Lopez always knows how to dominate a room here, whether she’s dazzling a club full of horny men with her acrobatic pole-dancing, strutting her way into an oak-lined New York bar, or shooting down a retail salesperson for daring to look askance at a high-end purchase being made with multiple one-dollar bills.
That purchase is made by Destiny (Constance Wu), the new girl at the club, who’s been dancing for years to support her beloved grandmother (Wai Ching Ho, last seen as a nefarious crime boss on Netflix’s “Daredevil”). The club’s top draw is Ramona (Lopez), and in one of the turns in Scafaria’s screenplay that feels rushed and underdeveloped, Ramona immediately takes Destiny under her wing and teaches her everything she needs to know about dancing (be it pole- or lap-) and about life in general.
It’s 2008, and there’s tons of money to be made — until the housing bubble bursts, of course, and the Wall Street fat cats and their bottomless expense accounts suddenly disappear. Destiny takes time off to have a baby, and she’s in rough financial straits when her path crosses Ramona’s again in 2011. That’s when Ramona has a new way to make money: She and fellow strippers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, “Riverdale”) cozy up to wealthy men in bars, drug them, take them to the strip club, drain their credit cards, and stick them in a taxi.
It’s a fairly foolproof scheme; if the men get mad about it the next day, Ramona assures them they had a great time and just don’t remember. And besides, do they really want to call the police and have their wives find out they dropped five figures at a strip club? “Hustlers” explicitly presents this con as a form of class warfare against the people who tanked the economy and then never had to face jail time, and the film, much like the upcoming “Joker,” sheds no tears for its gold-watch-wearing prey.
Also like “Joker,” Scafaria seems to be taking some cues from Scorsese, whether it’s a Steadicam shot early in the film that introduces us to both the backstage and the mainstage of the club or the narrated sequences that explain how the caper works and where the money goes. Much of the script crackles in its portrayal of both larceny and female friendship, but it frequently leaves out what seems like essential connective tissue. Besides undercutting the central Destiny-Ramona relationship, it sets up subplots (Ramona encourages Destiny to go back to school) and characters (Destiny’s daughter, Mercedes Ruehl as a stripper den-mother) that are addressed and then dropped.
This is a director who knows how to work with actors, however, and even with Lopez running off with most of the movie, there’s a fine ensemble here. Wu, who seemed to be overshadowed by her co-stars in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” makes more of an impact this time, particularly in the framing scenes where she’s telling the whole story to a journalist (played by Julia Stiles). Palmer and Reinhart carve out moments of humanity despite being saddled with characters that have one defining factor each. (Respectively: having an incarcerated boyfriend and barfing in moments of tension.)
If there’s a place where the film most benefits from a female gaze, it’s in the portrayal of the strip club. In movies, such establishments are either shoehorned into an R-rated, male-driven story as an excuse for some diegetic breasts, or they’re overdressed PG-13 lingerie catwalks. “Hustlers” gives us the sex — in the early, heyday scenes, there’s a gaggle of sensuous performers in a variety of body types, including Cardi B, Lizzo and Trace Lysette — while still doing right by its actors. (Lopez’s opening dance believably makes the club erupt in cash, even as she keeps her breasts covered.)
The film is noble in its portrayal of female empowerment as a means of revenge against vulture capitalism (Adam McKay of “The Big Short” is an executive producer), even when it pushes its central we’re-all-dancing-for-dollars metaphor to obvious extremes. Like its protagonists, who eventually got caught, “Hustlers” doesn’t ultimately manage to get away with it, but it has a pretty good time in the process.