Hustlers represents some kinda first in movie history: Never before has such an engrossing story involved this much glitter. As the film opens, Destiny (Constance Wu) begins her job as a stripper in a New York City club, circa 2008. She is mouse-meek, like a new pledge in a half-naked sorority. Destiny’s first day does not go well: Territorial dancers hiss her away from their poles. Sleazy day-traders, their faces damp from cocaine and dirty martinis, bundle their $1 bills with horny stares and disgusting commentary. It’s here that we meet Destiny: Frightened, broke, and clanging on the barrel’s bottom.
All that changes when Destiny lays eyes on Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), the Alpha of this particular titty bar. When Ramona saunters her way to the main stage, she owns the room and everyone in it. Men shower her with money and attention; the other strippers give her a wide berth. Destiny sees her surroundings in a completely different light: Her clientele might consist of obnoxious fools, but they’re fools with loose morals and fat wallets. Destiny latches onto Ramona, in the hopes of mastering her confidence and control.
The two women quickly form a sisterly bond, with Ramona acting as the worldlier sibling. They form a double act, seducing googly-eyed millionaires to fork over their hundos. For a while, it’s high times at the strip club. Money rolls in. Booze flows. Even Usher pops in to make it rain. Then the stock market goes into a full-on spiral. Entire companies go down the disposal. As disposable cash grows scarce, the ladies soon find themselves out of work. For Destiny, it’s back to square one. Things get even more complicated when it turns out that she and her deadbeat boyfriend are having a baby.
Destiny spends a few years working any job for any wage before she runs into Ramona, who reveals a brand new gig: She and her old colleagues lure their former customers into the champagne room with drinks and cleavage, before slipping them a roofie and robbing them blind. Destiny balks when invited to join this criminal enterprise, but Ramona has some rationalization already loaded in the chamber. These Wall Street scumbags are the real villains, and how could it be wrong to steal from a villain? Destiny climbs aboard, and the whole thing really takes off.
Hustlers is an intelligent, often-funny take on events that apparently happened in real life. Director Lorene Scafaria supplies just enough drama to keep things serious, but not too serious. She also infuses the film with a few Scorsese-style flourishes, including several long tracking shots and freeze frames. These visual gimmicks, plus the ever-present narration and throwback songs on the soundtrack, make this movie feel a little bit like Goodfellas with G Strings.
The cast does fine work, but this striptease mainly belongs to JLo. She’s been a personality and source for tabloid gossip so long that it’s easy to forget how talented she is. Lopez infuses Ramona with potent charisma, genuine warmth, and a fiery temper. Ramona is a complex character who serves as Destiny’s salvation and doom, all at once. An actor with lesser star power would’ve resulted in a lesser film.
And, just to be clear: This is a fine movie, but it ain’t perfect. Julia Stiles is wasted as a reporter in a few interview scenes that are awkwardly interspersed through the story. Plus, the subject matter ultimately grows both wearying and a little repetitive after a while. I never thought I would type this sentence, but: If you’ve seen one pudgy stockbroker seduced, drugged, and robbed, you’ve seen ’em all.
But those aren’t dealbreakers. With Hustlers, the good far outweighs the bad. Give this movie a chance, and you’ll find a surprising balance of sensitivity and cleverness for a movie about exotic dancers. “This whole country is a strip club,” Ramona notes cynically. You’re either shaking your ass, or flinging cash onstage. This movie depicts the people shaking their ass with about as much skill and ambition as you’re probably ever going to see in a major motion picture.