A debate has broken out on social media as to whether or not Lorene Scafaria’s new film, Hustlers, is feminist. So let me get that out of the way first: Of course Hustlers is feminist. It’s a film written and directed by a woman, starring a cast of women, based on a New York magazine article by a woman (Jessica Pressler), and it focuses on women reclaiming their power (albeit illegally) in an arena—strip clubs and champagne rooms—where they are often exploited or worse.
But frankly, it’s the wrong question to ask. Here are the real questions: Is the film entertaining? Wildly so. Is it the best star-vehicle Jennifer Lopez has had in years, possibly ever? Totally. Is it a celebration of female friendship, badassery, and resilience? You’re damn right it is.
Constance Wu plays Destiny, a new employee at a New York strip club that caters to a Wall Street clientele. At first she doesn’t quite know how to work the room, until she spies club veteran Ramona (Lopez) doing her thing and is mesmerized. Who wouldn’t be? This is the greatest female entrance on film since a besotted Bradley Cooper laid eyes on Lady Gaga singing “La Vie En Rose” in last year’s A Star is Born.
At 50, Lopez still looks like a golden goddess, and she draws expertly upon her dance background, spinning on the pole, doing aerial splits, and smacking her platform shoes emphatically against the stage. I was, to borrow a phrase, fully gagged. Her Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, because that’s who Ramona is (later, it will be a source of friction between the two women, as Ramona can’t help but to take in strays). Never before has Lopez’s combination of sexual magnetism and maternal warmth been used to better effect. (Ramona is, in fact, a single mother. She describes the lengths mothers will go to protect their children as a “mental illness.”) Under Ramona’s tutelage, Destiny—who is trying to make enough money to pay off her grandmother’s debts—gets good at her job. She learns how to recognize which Wall Street guys are real players and which are wannabes (hint: Look at their shoes). She learns how to give them what they want—but not all of what they want. And she learns how to encourage them to rack up charges on their platinum cards.
Destiny becomes friends with the other women at the club, including Keke Palmer, Cardi B (a natural!), and Lili Reinhart. (My beloved Lizzo has a brief cameo—and even plays the flute!). The great Mercedes Ruehl (where ya been, lady?) is on hand as a kind of den mother the girls call “mama.” Everything is going swimmingly until the stock market crashes and the good times stop rolling. All the women try to get “real” jobs—the glamorous Ramona improbably ends up at an Old Navy—but the pay is ridiculously low and, what’s more, they have no power in big box America. In the strip club, they were the ones in control.
At this point, their old club still exists, but it’s gotten seedier, uglier. But still, as we know, while lots of Wall Street dudes lost their jobs after the stock market crash, some of the biggest players managed to stay rich—and even get richer. These are the men that Ramona decides to target—luring them first into the club’s private rooms, then later hotel suites (so the clubs can’t get a cut), drugging them just enough so that they forget everything, and stealing money from their credit cards. She recruits Destiny and some of the old crew to help her.
Hustlers has the structure of many similar crime films: the wide-eyed apprentice seduced by the charismatic gang leader, the specific details of the con, the heady days of happiness and prosperity (in this case, fortified by a giddy dose of girl power), and the inevitable fall. It even has a Scorsese-esque narration, courtesy of an interview a journalist (Julia Stiles) does with Destiny. Director Scafaria is a master at all this, wielding a montage scene like a scalpel, injecting the film with the perfect combination of humor, heart, cynicism, wish fulfillment, and sex, all bolstered by Lopez’s career-defining performance. Hustlers is the mashup of Showgirls, Goodfellas, and The Big Short that we never knew we needed. Rejoice! Movies are good again.