Another review I read of Hustlers described it as “Goodfellas in a g-string,” and I cannot think of a better description than that. Hustlers is a crime movie that puts the focus on women. A group of dancers pull a scam on their odious clients, at least until a few of them can overcome the shame and tell the police what happened. It is one of the better movies to come out in the last few months and a good kick off for fall movies.
This is a true crime story of a group of strippers who stole tons of money from their clients. They did this by drugging them and stealing their credit cards. Constance Wu stars as Destiny, who comes under the wing of experienced dancer Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez. Ramona teaches Destiny how to dance. Eventually, they split up, but after Destiny’s relationship fails and she tries to go back to dancing, they meet back up. The early part of the movie takes place before the financial collapse, the latter half after. The money just doesn’t flow like it did before. So Ramona assembles a crew for a new venture. They go to bars and find men and entice them to go to the strip club. But eventually that well runs dry. So then they hatch a new plan; drugging the men, bringing them to the club and robbing them blind.
Hustlers does a great job of playing with the audience’s sympathies. The first hour is all about getting you to sympathize with its main characters. You see the women’s struggles and their dreams. Those dreams might be somewhat ridiculous–I am not sure about Ramona’s clothing line of denim swimwear–but the movie never asks you to laugh at them. It also goes out of its way to portray the men who are coming into the club as absolute creeps. They are mostly wall street traders just before the stock market collapse. The movie gets you on board with them, and when their efforts turn criminal the movie makes it easy to follow their justifications. Then the movie pushes further and further. The marks become less odious, the women less justified. Then the movie pulls it back once it closes in on the ending.
The movie lives by the performances and relationships of its crew. Lopez is the standout as Ramona, a force of nature in the club, whose drive leads to the plan and whose foibles lead to their inevitable capture. Wu doesn’t appear quite as comfortable as Destiny; at first because that is the character, but later because her attitude is inconsistent. Other characters move in and out, with Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart rounding out the primary crew of scammers. Palmer in particular steals every scene she is in. The chemistry between Wu and Lopez drives the movie. At first it seems almost romantic, but the real nature of the connection becomes clear later. Destiny was abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by her grandmother. Ramona becomes like her surrogate mother. That fits with Ramona’s mother hen tendencies. But Destiny is not the only young dancer she has formed such a relationship with. Ramona’s refusal to cut any of them loose, no matter how untrustworthy they prove to be. Even at the end, Destiny still craves that connection with Ramona.
The other thread, that one that doesn’t quite work, is how this story is being told as a story to a reporter played by Julia Stiles. She is fine, but the storyline only seems to deflate the tension of the main story.
Hustlers is a delight. It is a crime story with a fresh perspective. It is a movie that takes characters that are usually treated as disposable and showing that they are people. It doesn’t quite land every note, but the whole package is a lot of fun.