Hustlers is a smirking and thumping good time. A tale of gal pals doing crimes with little to no remorse. Strippers scamming Wall Street businessmen and chasing the American dream: status.
Lorene Scafaria has written and directed a punk rock anthem to sisterhood and class warfare. Stylish and slick, it twirls and spins with heart and humanity. Movies praising “sisterhood” are hardly uncommon. The women in Hustlers are vainglorious, kind, greedy, angry, smart, and loyal.
Based on the true story detailed in the newspaper article The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler, Scafaria gives us a wild and gut-wrenching tale of sisterhood and ultimately betrayal. Cleverly, Scafaria shows us the girls at the club years before they started their “criminal organization.”
Dorthy (Constance Wu) is new to the club. With a gnawing desire for independence and a grandmother with a mountain of debt, she seizes her new gig with gusto. With management taking more than his fair share of her money she has little more than a cab fare home. But then she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Statuesque, pristine, nimble, and confident Ramona. Dorthy hesitantly tries to befriend Ramona one night as she sits on the roof in nothing but a bikini and a fur coat smoking a cigarette. It’s love at first sight. Ramona represents everything Dorthy wants to be.
Hustlers is less concerned with the ins and outs of the crimes themselves. Though from time to time Scafaria cuts to the present with Dorthy talking to the reporter Pressler (Julia Stiles). The story is told from Dorthy’s perspective as she tries to explain what happened—more to herself than to Pressler.
When the 2008 market crash happens, my stomach dropped. So much of Hustlers is reminding us how exorbitant and carefree America used to be before the crash. Buying apartments in New York have always been difficult and expensive, but comparatively by modern standards pre-2008 it must have been a comparative steal.
But when the crash happens everything changes. Dorthy had left stripping to raise her kid and lost touch with all the girls she knew, Romana included. After breaking up with her boyfriend, she finds herself back to familiar dire straits. But upon her return, Dorthy is shocked by the changes. Mama (Mercedes Ruhl), once the matron of the club in charge of being the wrangler for the girls and making sure everyone was treated properly, now works the bar.
The cameras have been taken out of the club so as to allow the current girls, “mostly Russians,” to do more than just dance. Of course, what management never thought of, or more likely didn’t care about, was how vulnerable it left the girls. One man offers Dorthy three hundred dollars to touch him—something that would have been unthinkable before the crash. She gives him a blow job only to discover it wasn’t three hundreds but three twenties.
Humiliated and ashamed, she runs into Romana. The two have a heart to heart over coffee and Romana asks Dorthy why she didn’t keep in touch. Dorthy explains it was because of her daughter. Ramona understands. She has a daughter herself, “Motherhood is a mental illness.”
Romana tells Dorthy of a new system she and a couple of the other girls have devised. After the crash, the Wall Street businessmen all but vanished. The ones who did come were no longer as free with their money as they once were. So instead they’ve taken to drugging the men, taking their credit card, maxing it out, and returning them home, poorer but none the worse for wear.
The anger bristling around the edges of every frame of Hustlers is cathartic and empathetic. After the crash, millions of Americans lost homes, their retirement funds, and jobs. Yet it appeared all Wall Street had lost was money. Money that they quickly started making again, only this time keeping it for themselves.
It’s ironic that post-2008 the only people not blamed for the worldwide collapse of the economy weren’t the banks and stockbrokers but us. We were blamed. Hustlers takes that anger and weaponizes it as a way to explore how the American Dream is itself a mental illness and a moral quagmire.
Like all true crime stories Romona, Dorthy, and the rest of the girls start to get sloppy. Ramona starts bringing in drug addicts and people with records to help outsource their scam. Dorthy warns her friends, “We’re breaking the law, we don’t want to work with criminals.”
Lopez’s Ramona is a potent reminder of her potential as an actor. She cajoles, mothers, and threatens her way through relationships. Ramona isn’t dishonest or a sociopath. Far from it; she loves Dorthy, Mercedes (Keke Palmer), Annabelle (Lil Reinheart), and the others. She just also loves the freedom money gives her, they all do.
The women in Hustlers aren’t after money. They’re after what the men on Wall Street have: freedom. Freedom to do what they want and have what they want. It’s only after it all comes crashing down do Ramona and Dorthy realize how much they value each other.
After getting out of jail Dorthy confesses to Ramona she’s taking the deal. Lopez’s reaction is the crux of all those conversations about awards and nominations you’ve likely heard about. The reaction is intense an filled with rage and love. “Why,” she screams. Dorthy’s response floors Ramona and the rage vanishes.
For all the gloss and sheen of Todd Banhazl’s camera work, it is Scafaria’s attention to character detail that grounds the movie in its intimacy. An opening tracking shot is reminiscent of the now-infamous scene in Goodfellas in which Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco walk through the Copacabana. The scene is merely an opening salvo to what the rest of the film unveils itself to be. Lopez reclining on the roof in her mink coat and little else feels like something out of a music video. But the confidence and charisma of Lopez herself mixed with Ramona’s own charisma makes us understand why Dorthy would latch onto her. How could she not?
Underneath all the politics and larceny is the desperate need to belong and to be loved. The final shot is of Dorthy on the phone asking Pressler if Ramona said anything about her. Simple, yet powerful, it is one of my favorite final shots of the year so far.
Hustlers never apologizes for its characters and it never asks us to forgive them. It merely presents them as they are and lets us decide how we feel. For myself, I hope Dorthy and Ramona make up.