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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the movie hustler must always take the young upstart under their wing. In Hustlers, that moment comes when Jennifer Lopez, lounging on a New York roof in an elaborate white G-string, spreads her luscious fur coat and wraps Constance Wu’s fresh-faced stripper inside with her. It’s a glittery gesture of sisterhood, bestowed by the biggest star in the world, working a profession long derided by larger society as immoral. As fun as most films about scams are, few of them are able to explain the mindset behind their scammers as eloquently as this single moment of us-versus-them feminine energy.
To be fair, the ladies aren’t million-dollar scammers yet — that comes later, after the 2008 financial crash, when they team up to drug rich clients and max out their credit cards. (The film is based on a New York magazine article.) For now they’re still just strippers, one much better than the other. But even at this stage, when JLo strides toward the camera with the look that could cut glass, it certainly feels like she’s getting away with something. Whatever “gaze” Hustlers has (Male? Female? Male-through-female transitive property?) is trained squarely on her. Lopez’s veteran dancer Ramona storms into the film with a fiery pole dance that brings the house down (actually performed by the actress), bathing in fists of cash thrown by unworthy men, expertly flipping the strip-club power dynamic, if only for a moment. She is, essentially, playing a character who knows she’s Jennifer Lopez.
The rest of Hustlers is exactly as boisterous, entertaining, and self-aware as these early scenes promise. It constructs a sexy persona for the audience, then dances and dances until we don’t realize how far in over our heads we are. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria fills the movie with clever bits, from editing tricks (a wire recording of a sting operation that plays over the actual sting) to extended cameos (Lizzo plays the flute; Cardi B gives a lap-dancing lesson). But the movie is more than window dressing: It’s an astute commentary on the money moves we all need to make to survive.
As the ingenue Destiny, Wu shows off a dramatic range that was denied her in the megahit Crazy Rich Asians. She walks the club floor in the first scene to work the daily degradations: clientele who call her “Lucy Liu,” managers who garnish her tips. Destiny and the other girls live off the pocket-change of Wall Street horndogs who don’t want to go home to their wives: The higher up the chain these guys are, the more they demand and the more they pay out.
After years of movies depicting the strip club as the McDonald’s PlayPlace of male antiheroes, a morale-free party zone where any performer lucky enough to get a name is also liable to fall in love with the protagonist, Scafaria reclaims the venue for women by de-eroticizing and de-mystifying it. This is a place of work. The flirting, like everything else, is a show designed to get the dopes to part with their money; all the genuine bonding happens behind closed doors, between the women themselves. (There’s a kindly mother hen on staff, played by The Fisher King’s Mercedes Ruehl, and she and the ladies have frank discussions about dating and finances.)
The scam, when it emerges, is a by-product of this blunt transactional setting. It’s the opposite of an elaborate con: A group seduction, followed by a roofie. Compared to what we saw the ladies’ clientele get up to in The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short (that film’s director Adam McKay is a producer here, too, along with Will Ferrell), it’s downright crude. But that’s also the point. Those guys had the entire American financial system at their disposal. The women have these guys, and their lust for power and fantasy. They sneak in through the bottom rung, where they’re underestimated, pilfer what they can, and get out; their protection is the shame and ego of their marks, who don’t want to admit they willingly went to a strip club with their company card.
“This game is rigged,” Ramona declares. “It does not reward people who play by the rules.” But their reward for rule-breaking winds up looking just as crass and materialistic as the men’s spoils, only on a smaller scale: Louboutins and Cadillac Escalades instead of mansions and offshore bank accounts. The film is careful to provide a justification for why each conspirator needs the money. Ramona and Destiny have children; the others (including Keke Palmer) have men in prison, or are estranged from their families. Ultimately, though, like anyone else chasing money, they’re doing it to see how much they can keep for themselves.
This conclusion isn’t too surprising. We’re living in a hyper-capitalist caper movie, after all, and excessive wealth accumulation will always be inherently selfish. Hustlers tries to dodge this by using a magazine reporter/framing device played by Julia Stiles, a stand-in for the audience who gets pre-emptively lectured for judging the con women. They needn’t have bothered. Once Lopez sets the screen on fire, she’s already obliterated the line between what is stolen and what is earned. And we’re happy to play the game.