Sexuality is a weapon in “Hustlers,” empowering the women who wield it in this seductive true-crime saga, which does for a gang of New Yawk bad girls what “Goodfellas” did for the mob — which is to say, it brings Champagne-rush sex appeal and neon-lit style to a wild case in which a crew of enterprising female dancers stripped several rich Wall Street clients of a fortune. Flashy, fleshy and all-around impossible to ignore, “Hustlers” amounts to nothing less than a cultural moment, inspired by an outrageous New York Magazine profile (which serves as the sturdy six-inch stilettos on which the movie stands) adapted by writer-director Lorene Scafaria at her most Scorsese, and starring Jennifer Lopez like you’re never seen her before.
“This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance,” Lopez’s Ramona tells Julia Stiles (in all-business, “Bourne Identity” mode), who plays a version of nonjudgmental journalist Jessica Pressler, investigating the case. Practically everyone in “Hustlers” is playing some version of a real person, although Stiles is just about the only one (of the women, at least) whose casting doesn’t amount to a million-dollar makeover. The people “doing the dance” here are nearly all names — from “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu and “Riverdale” girl next door Lili Reinhardt to supporting players Keke Palmer, Cardi B and Lizzo — which collectively flatters a profession previously thought scandalous.
In the quarter-century since “Showgirls,” a line of work once dismissed as degrading has been almost completely reevaluated in light of third-wave feminism — of which Madonna serves as poster girl (and an obvious role model for Lopez’s own career), a kind of pop-culture dominatrix who made “sex” her brand and turned lingerie into a kind of battle armor onstage. Instead of rejecting all that seemed misogynistic and corrupt in society, Gen Xers set out to subvert those institutions from within.
Suddenly, pole dancing classes were being offered at gyms across America, while Page Six party girls and self-made porn stars were being treated as celebrities. A brilliant young writer, who made a devilishly clever name for herself blogging about life as a “candy girl,” won an Oscar for penning a deceptively wholesome pro-choice comedy. And a group of New York strippers — who baited, drugged and stole from the rich to give to their relatively poor selves — were hailed as the defiant heroines in what the press called “a modern Robin Hood story.”
By incorporating Pressler’s reporting into her big-screen treatment, Scafaria raises questions about representation right off the top: What kind of biases do outsiders bring when they think about strippers? “Hustlers” humanizes the women at its center, giving them boyfriends, backstories and, most importantly, agency. The dancers are smart enough to embody any number of male fantasies, but they do so on their terms, and Scafaria never loses sight of the fact that they’re the ones in control at all times: “Drain the clock, not the c—,” Ramona advises wide-eyed ingenue Destiny (Wu), explaining, in crude but catchy terms, how strippers are paid to tease, not to fulfill their clients’ desires.
The real Ramona, Samantha Foxx (actual name: Barbash), was well into her 30s when met Roselyn Keo (on whom Destiny was modeled). A multitalent who has never been less than the most electric entity on screen in anything she’s done, Lopez has more than a decade on her character, and yet the superstar — who got her start dancing as a Fly Girl on “In Living Color” — astonishes, showing Olympic-medal moves in her introductory scene. Destiny’s transfixed (and so are we) to see Ramona outdo Cirque du Soleil, floating, spinning and all-around dazzling onstage like some kind of radiant carousel mermaid, before sliding upside down to the floor, where she clacks her shoes loudly as she pulls off the splits.
This is what failed auteur Steve Antin was going for with his embarrassing “Burlesque”: “Hustlers” represents an acrobatic celebration of unbridled femininity, in which liberated ladies take full advantage of the power they hold over men — who, in this equation, are by far the weaker sex, slaves to a libido satisfied only by spending. Of course, there are plenty who would dismiss such a display as a compromise of a woman’s true strengths, but “Hustlers” doesn’t have time for such arguments. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, the movie seems to say, celebrating a wide range of body types as beautiful while limiting just how much ogling audiences are permitted.
Destiny’s new-girl status excuses Wu’s relatively clumsy moves (in any case, her performance is better spent playing the movie’s conflicted moral center) while giving Scafaria reason to walk audiences through the profession. Unless you’ve given or gotten a lap dance yourself, the rules of the game are not at all obvious — and frankly, remain a bit too mysterious in their impartial explanation here. At a club like Moves (a composite of Scores, Flash Dancers and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club), the women earn nothing for dancing but work for tips, giving a hefty cut (40% to 50%) to the club, which provides the rooms where the patrons start to get really generous.
In “Hustlers,” it’s the dancers who do the objectifying, reducing their male customers to a collection of shallow stereotypes (only Usher, playing a big-spending version of himself, emerges unscathed). Most come off like Frank Whaley, looking smug and smarmy as a fat-cat patron allowed to enter through the back, the way Ray Liotta does the Copacabana in “Goodfellas.” That movie’s famous Steadicam shot also inspires this film’s fluorescent-lit opening scene, which shadows Destiny from dressing room to stage.
Some of these one-dimensional Wall Street guys — bankers and brokers who make millions in variously dishonest ways — don’t hesitate to drop six figures in a single visit. “They can be degrading, aggressive, possessive and violent,” Destiny tells her interviewer, although it’s up to our imaginations to decide how to interpret that (and mine’s not nearly sharp enough, since the character’s “anything goes” cynicism seems to contradict a scene where Destiny is later seen crying after she crosses the line with one douchebag).
Things are safer when the women work together — as Destiny starts to do with Ramona — which also makes it easier to coax more cash out of their human ATMs. “It’s a business, and it’s more honest than any transaction they did that day,” Destiny explains, buying Gucci bags with a stack of sweat-soaked singles while a prim-and-proper saleswoman looks on in mild disapproval.
And then the economy tanks. The customers get stingy. Overnight, the men seem to expect more for their money — and a new crop of impossibly gorgeous immigrants are willing to give it for $300 a pop (the movie treads a fine line of slut-shaming, attempting to distinguish between stripping and prostitution, while setting up a change of business whereby the women will wind up taking the men to fancy houses and hotel rooms to steal their credit cards). During the downturn, Destiny went off and had a kid, and though Ramona insists that “motherhood is an illness” — blaming her mom for where she wound up — she too has a daughter, and both feel the need to get creative in order to provide for their families.
Ramona calls it “fishing”: Since rich men can no longer be relied upon to find their way to the club on their own, the dancers must go out and entice them. Once they’ve ensnared an unsuspecting rube (who thinks he’s gotten lucky), they bring him back to Moves, where they’ve worked out an arrangement with the club, driving up the bill and splitting the spoils. That works fine for a while, but takes a turn when Ramona decides it would be easier if they started to spike the guys’ drinks with a substance, a home-baked cross between ecstasy and ketamine, that knocks them out.
“Hustlers” features not one but two scenes in which Lopez is shown pitching her plan to her sistahs, not to mention the mock-indignant one where Wu describes it to Stiles’ reporter — none of which seems especially plausible, much less necessary. As audiences, we don’t need to believe they thought it was safe, or that the use of narcotics was “normal.” But it would help to better understand the scam, which involves something about calling up their regulars, offering them a good time and then maxing out their credit cards.
In real life, Foxx and Keo took it too far, but they had a blast in the process, and their victims were men who, by virtue of their wealth and social entitlement, felt like money justified their mistreatment. That’s a gross oversimplification of the facts, but then, predation usually flows in the opposite direction. Too few movies acknowledge the effect and extent of sex work in the United States, and “Hustlers” at least finds the thrill in a case where a group of women did the exploiting. Recall the scene in “American Psycho” where yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman takes a chain saw to two women, and this is payback of the sweetest kind.
That’s the spirit that drives Scafaria’s approach, with its slick, surface-oriented celebration of material excess. Shot and edited like a music video, full of “look at me” camera moves and gratuitously long montages, “Hustlers” is a radical subversion of how the profession has been depicted for the past century. Marisa Tomei may have made the most of her role in “The Wrestler,” but as Shirley MacLaine once put it in asserting her own options, there came a point when she got tired of playing hookers, doormats and victims — which were the best parts available to her at the time. And what of all those aspiring young starlets, relegated to working the pole, topless and anonymous, in a show like “The Sopranos”? Well, now they have their own “Goodfellas.”