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.