I don’t know if stripping is truly “empowering,” but it sure looks that way when Jennifer Lopez does it. “Powerful” might be a better word. She’s rhythmic and graceful and gorgeous, but the quality that most stands out is coiled strength, a kind of potential energy. To put it bluntly: she looks like she could kick your ass. And like she could do it without messing up her hair.
The “empowerment” debate is a bit silly, isn’t it? Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria, tells the story of a cabal of multi-racial exotic dancers who team up to commit credit card fraud against their clientele of drunken, horned-up rich dorks. Like virtually all mob, gang, or drug movies before it, the protagonists of Hustlers are struggling blue-collar kids who cut a few legal corners to get “ahead.” The main difference between them and their male counterparts is that they use the promise of sex rather than the threat of violence (of course they do, that’s what’s available to them). Are they empowered? I don’t know. Were Henry Hill and Tony Montana empowered? I know they were entertaining.
Constance Wu, previously of Crazy Rich Asians, plays Destiny, a young woman from Kew Gardens Queens stripping to pay the mortgage on the house she lives in with her grandma. Scafaria, adapting from a New York magazine story written by Jessica Pressler, wisely plays the story pretty straight. Hustler’s structure is virtually identical to umpteen other mob and crime movies so she doesn’t need to overdo the sob story of why Destiny so desperately needs the money — this is just the easiest path for her. We get it, and Scafaria knows we do.
Destiny has recently transferred to a club in Manhattan where the potential for payouts is greater, but so is her per-shift overhead. She has to pay the club a percentage of her tips, tip out security, bribe the manager for decent stage time, and by the time she goes home she has a lot less of the money she just spent all night shaking her ass for than she thinks she deserves. At the new club one night she spots Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez, who’s literally there in the spotlight, representing everything Destiny wants to be.
Specifically, Ramona is doing a pole-and-dance routine set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” which still totally slaps. It’s not the most on-the-nose of musical choices — it would’ve been much more obvious to set it to Buckcherry or Motley Crue or Kid Rock — but it’s just believable enough, partly because we want it to be.
Constance Wu’s casting is sort of the same way. Jennifer Lopez is perfect as the alpha stripper, the former In Living Color Fly Girl who can dance her absolute ass off and tells Destiny, utterly without embarrassment, that she was a centerfold in 1993. ’93! Half the staff at your local strip club wouldn’t have been born in ’93, but J.Lo/Ramona has personified a sexual ideal for like 30 years straight and she’s goddamn proud of it. Why shouldn’t she be? What aspiring dancer wouldn’t want to be like her? It’s the cosmically perfect combination of actor and role last seen with Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike and she’ll probably end up winning the Oscar he was robbed of.
Destiny, meanwhile, is much more of a stretch. Wu is like the even-less-bangy Fiona Apple song to J.Lo’s obvious Buckcherry. She doesn’t look like someone who might strip for a living, I mean. Her sexuality is a lot less in your face. Partly that’s her character, someone who has to learn the game from an old salt like Ramona, but even so it’s still a mild stretch. Luckily, Wu is a good enough actress to make us want to believe, especially in one standout scene later in the film where she has to fake being a hysterical wife at a hospital, the funniest of the film.
Ramona takes Destiny under her wing (fur coats standing in symbolically for that wing), drawing Destiny into her credit card fraud scheme. They treat their clients horribly but offer justifications for their behavior throughout. Men are pigs, Wall Street guys are thieves anyway, America is just one big strip club. It’s important to note, the movie is clear about these being Destiny and Ramona‘s justifications for their behavior, not the storyteller’s.
An intelligent audience (in whatever fantasyland where that might exist) would recognize these justifications for the self-serving bullshit wrapped in a sheen of truthful social commentary they are. Every grift requires dehumanizing the mark, to paint them as deserving so that the scammer can remain the hero of their own story. Hustlers‘ riffs about Wall Street thieves (in a story with a backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis) aren’t really any different than any mob movie before it: “The working man is a sucker (Goodfellas)”, “ju need me so ju can point jour fucking finger and say ‘there’s the bad guy'” (Scarface), “turns out da gubbament were da real ganstas” (Gotti).
Hustlers suffers a little from its general arc being familiar, but it’s also more insightful in some ways about the kind of psyche a scam requires. When Destiny waffles during a fraud, Ramona screams “if we didn’t do it someone else would!” It reminded me of a friend of mine who worked at a Boiler Room-type establishment where his supervisor, livid that he wouldn’t take an old lady’s savings for something she obviously didn’t need, screamed, “She would’ve done the same to you!” In taking people’s money, it helps to have a worldview where everyone is either predator or prey. For some, being the predator is the only way to know you’re not prey. Or as Destiny says, “hurt people hurt people.” Eh, close enough.
Hustlers is solid, with fantastic performances, but it’s so similar to so many scam movies that came before it that it suffers a little from the expectation that it will go further. Its main distinction, other than being a gender swap from the norm, is that it’s, at least in some tangential way, about sex. Only Hustlers doesn’t seem to want to be about sex. Over and over Ramona reiterates that money is sexy, and the characters all get very horned up for shitty bling. This would seem to warrant a little further exploration. Why is money, and pointless displays of affluence, sexy? Is it because their sex work is so stigmatized and money is their consolation prize? Their only way of displaying value to society?
The idea is there in Hustlers, albeit in embryonic form. Mostly though, it’s content to be a fast-paced, entertaining version of a story we know and love, and when you’ve got J.Lo in the role she was born to play, that’s enough.