'Hustlers' finds love in the club

hustlers.jpg

This review is spoiler free.

One point commonly overlooked about great art is that it is easy to be different. As the box office continues to be captured by sequels and remakes, the cinema world mourns the tragic death of the market for original storytelling. There is a nuance lost in this argument, though: original does not mean good. Anybody can do anything. For every breakthrough masterpiece like The Tree of Life, there is a completely unprecedented travesty like Jupiter Ascending. As impressive as it can be to see a unique vision on screen, perhaps harder still is to craft a film that feels familiar yet new, like a flavor you recognize but can’t quite identify. Hustlers is the rare movie that pulls off this feat, and it’s where the magic of the film lies.

There are many recent films that share narrative DNA with Hustlers. The most obvious comparison is Magic Mike, not only for the strip club setting but for the undercurrent of economic woe this setting creates in both films. Hustlers’ descent into criminality and exquisite pacing recall the best of Martin Scorsese, and its transparent disgust with Wall Street greed recalls Adam McKay flicks like The Other Guys and The Big Short (McKay, by no coincidence, is one of the producers for Hustlers). The most apt comparison might be last year’s Widows, another female-driven crime drama with an eye toward economic justice. Yet Hustlers is not a mere amalgamation of these past movies. It borrows from them, but only in the process of creating something entirely new.

Constance Wu is the star of the show in Hustlers as a naive stripper named Destiny, new to the club and unsuccessful at generating tips. Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, the longtime feature act at the club and a dancer skilled enough to make ends meet. The relationship among the dancers is supportive and loving; they favor mutual commiseration over competition. Ramona quickly takes Destiny under her wing, or perhaps more accurately, under her fur coat.

Destiny and Ramona manage to live comfortably for a while, until they and everyone they know are ruined by the 2008 financial crash. The collapse crushes their Wall Street clientele and, by extension, the strip club. Destiny tries to break into retail, only to run into an all-too-familiar paradox: to get the job you need experience, but you can’t have experience without getting the job. She eventually returns to the club, but with a less profitable client base, she and Ramona turn to a new plan: drugging and robbing their customers.

The end result of this strategy is not exactly a surprise: the majority of Hustlers is told in hindsight, as a present day Destiny recounts her pole dancing past to a reporter (Julia Stiles) writing a story about the drugging scandal. Destiny is seemingly well-to-do, and estranged from Ramona. When the reporter asks Destiny about the formulation of the plan, Destiny replies scornfully that Ramona was always in control. The two matriarchs of the scheme have fallen out of touch.

If this sounds anticlimactic, fear not: Writer-director Lorene Scafaria is a wise enough storyteller to keep the specifics murky, and the journey is a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Wu and Lopez are charismatic ringleaders, and the fun grows as their crew does. Hustlers assumes an ambivalent moral stance as the crimes stack up; Ramona and Destiny are clearly not doing a good thing, but the robberies are not exactly indulgent economic catharsis, either. The movie is fun simply because we want to spend as much time with these people as possible.

That’s not to say, though, that the movie is only a fun romp. The film is embedded with ideas about economic inequality, so that despite knowing the plot’s set-up and consequences, where Hustlers lands is surprising and moving. The film is somewhat intentionally misleading in this regard, right up until one character delivers one of the most clarifying and superbly delivered line readings I’ve ever heard: “How could you do that?”

In this moment, it becomes clear that the fundamental struggle in Hustlers is not only to succeed financially but to do so on one’s own terms, and the fundamental tragedy of Hustlers is clashing with a system that does not let you. “I don’t want to be dependent on anybody,” Destiny tells Ramona early on.

The joyous irony of the movie is that, as they hatch a plan to establish self-reliance, the women become reliant on each other. Hustlers is a love story of sorts, but it’s an affection that cannot be extracted from the environment that produced it. The film is a testament to the value of love in the face of exploitation, not necessarily as a means to dismantle that exploitation but to defiantly thrive in its shadow. It’s a love that quietly fights back. This love is what separates Hustlers most from its closest comparisons. As disparate as Magic Mike, The Big Short, and The Wolf of Wall Street are, they all share the belief that capitalism is an alienating force. In Hustlers, love is the critical response, and offers a sliver of hope. As Jack Mulligan might say, the women of Hustlers reap what they sow.

Unlike the crew in Widows, though, they do so extravagantly. Scafaria brings a visual flair to the screen, draping the film in neon lights yet grounding it in reality; every locale feels like the sort of place that seems glamorous until you flick on the lights. Jennifer Lopez delightfully chews up the scenery, brimming with self-assuredness, managing some impressive calisthenics on the pole, and rocking a fur coat like no other. Keke Palmer likewise delivers a hilarious standout performance as a stripper who gets roped into Ramona and Destiny’s scheme, and Cardi B, though only in the film for a few minutes, is a welcome burst of energy.

The energy of Hustlers is also boosted by a rollicking soundtrack. Each pop song is perfectly positioned for its scene, like Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” as the ballad of strip club grime or Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” as the anthem of 2007 leisure. But the film also fluidly transitions into a beautifully unnerving piano score in its more serious moments. The movie’s best musical scene, featuring a delightful cameo, combines these two moods with a pop song that features an iconic piano flutter, signaling the height of these characters’ camaraderie and warning of something more dire to come.

Despite the much deserved awards season praise for Lopez, The best performance of Hustlers belongs to Wu, who has the space to do something more nuanced and wider in scope. She plays innocent just as well as she plays ostentatious, and Destiny’s emotional journey grounds the stakes of the film. Her character also serves as the basis for what separates a clever film about social strife from a great one. Hustlers doesn’t just comment on or condemn a corrupt system; it lives and breathes that system, encompassing its very essence. It is one thing for a film to call out capitalism for making people feel like they are in a runaway car without any brakes; it’s a greater accomplishment to make us feel like we are helplessly behind the wheel.

The film closes with Lopez delivering an on-the-nose analogy for America: “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” Sometimes, though, on-the-nose isn’t so bad if the sentiment rings true. As least in Hustlers, the ones dancing are doing so with the people they love.

Hustlers: 4 stars

Jacob SkubishComment