The first time we see Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers feels like looking at a strip club through a magenta kaleidoscope. The shaky camera moves through the sensory pandemonium of flying bills, whipping pink strobe lights, and pumping music to focus in on her character, “The one, the only, Raamoonna,” as the announcer calls her.
Newcomer dancer Destiny’s (Constance Wu) eyes lay transfixed on Lopez’s magnetic pole-dancing performance. As Ramona maneuvers her body with acrobatic agility, landing upside- down on a bed money, Destiny’s lips curl upward in awe, as though she’s witnessed something holy. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Ramona says to Destiny with a sly smile as she strides off the stage cradling heaps of cash.
Hustlers, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, provides an untold, humanized perspective to the numbers and facts of the 2008 recession. The movie, based upon Jessica Pressler’s article in New York magazine, tells the story of dancers who work at Moves, a Manhattan strip club, through Destiny and her relationship with Ramona, an expert dancer. The article, titled “The Hustlers at Scores,” has a brief summary above the text: “A modern Robin Hood story: the strippers who stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting men and gave to, well, themselves.”
The movie opens with Destiny, whose real name is Dorothy, on her first night working at Moves, a popular strip club among Wall Street men with poor ethics, large egos, and no shortage of cash. Ramona adopts Destiny as a mentee (because when Jennifer Lopez offers you to wrap yourself in her coat on a rooftop on a cold winter night, you can’t say no), teaching her how to dance and more importantly, how to maximize her earnings. As Ramona advises, “You want ‘em drunk enough to get their credit card, but sober enough to get the check.”
After the 2008 financial crisis, however, the men are no longer willing to sloppily fling their money at anything in fishnet stockings, and Moves’s business drastically declines. To maintain her income, Ramona invents a scheme, which she dubs “fishing,” where she and other dancers lure men at bars to Moves without revealing their identities or that they are dancers – and she invites Destiny to participate. Then, Ramona heightens the scheme when she plots to spike the men’s drinks with MDMA and ketamine to get the men to drunkenly hand over their credit cards, social-security numbers, and other personal information. In 2013, when Ramona and Destiny hire other women to work for them who are not as careful in plotting as they are, they get caught by the police.
The movie narrates an unlikely story of gender and class; a gang of working-class women drugs men to exploit their hefty bank accounts. I suspect that if the gender or wealth narratives were reversed, the movie would have faced harsh criticism, because stories of wealthy men (and men in general) drugging women often have terrible endings. “I know it sounds bad to say that we were drugging people. But you gotta understand, in our world, this was normal,” Destiny tells Pressler.
Hustlers in no way attempts to absolve these women. They’re greedy and corrupt and all too willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of others for material wealth. And they’re punished for their actions. However, they swindle just as well as the men do, maybe even better. They may not be virtuous, but they certainly are tough.
There are no important men in the movie; the men only exist for the women to take advantage of them. Although Destiny and Ramona have fleeting relationships with men, the movie chooses not to explore them, but rather focus on the connections between the women. “You guys really are my sisters” dancer Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) muses as she and her friends and their families enjoy dinner at Ramona’s Manhattan penthouse.
For me, the most captivating part of the movie was Ramona’s relationship with Destiny. More like a mother-daughter bond than a friendship, the movie captures a love story between the two women with Lopez’s character at the helm. Lopez plays a complex, maternal role model while simultaneously immersing Destiny to the dark criminal world, all while making it seem genuine.
Although Ramona is almost naked at many points in the movie, that isn’t why she’s appealing. Female nudity in film is often synonymous with objectification, but Hustlers is about capitalism’s shortcomings and the bonds between women rather than the erotic lure of strippers.
Ramona’s ambition, intelligence, and grit lead us to root for her, even as she’s slipping drops of drugs into unsuspecting men’s drinks. She gives an emotional performance of a fierce, pioneering character who at times can be the adversary when she flakes on Destiny or gets her girls caught into trouble with the law, but ultimately emerges as the hero of the film.
However, Lopez didn’t receive a nomination for the 2020 Oscars for her entertaining performance. With a role second only to Wu, she could have received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The New York Times critic Kyle Buchanan noted that Hustlers has two main unappealing elements for Academy Award members: its raunchy plot, which happens to be propagated by all women. Hustlers was omitted from every category of the Oscars.
Although the Oscar voters didn’t favor it, fans flocked to see the movie. On its first weekend at the box office, it surprised critics as it made a hefty $33.2 million, exceeding prerelease tracking estimates by more than $8 million, Vulture reported. Eventually, it amassed over $100 million at the box office, according to Variety.
Hustlers is a movie with a lot beneath its shimmering surface; there are few movies about the financial crisis, other than the Big Short. Furthermore, this movie tells the story from a marginalized perspective, uniting the ostensibly greatly separated Wall Street men and dancers, thus undermining the societally-determined rules of capitalism.
Whereas the two groups may see each other as vastly different from the other, the movie shows us that they are very much the same. They both take any measure necessary to increase their wealth, whether it be through shady stock trades or “fishing.” The plot highlights that acquiring wealth does not correlate to happiness, but rather, to economic recessions for the men and arrests in Juicy sweatshirts for the women.
There seems to be a common, misguided idea shared among the dancers and the men that there is some point at which their sleazy methods of obtaining money will all be worth it, like climbing up to the top of a hill and finally enjoying the view. But, as Lorde sings in “Royals” in the montage of the women getting arrested, it’s merely a fantasy; in their capitalist world, the hill never ends, forever climbing.