The ink isn’t yet dry on the art that will frame the Great Recession. The few films that have been made around the defining event of the ‘00s each focus on a different subject; The Big Short shines a light on those who made out like bandits, The Wolf of Wall Street points the blame directly at its titular location, and Sorry to Bother You interrogates the human motivation behind greed. Hustlers, the newest addition to 2008 financial crisis’ wall of shame, is a street-level perspective of the working-class victims who could no longer afford to play it straight.
Destiny (Constance Wu) is struggling to break even as a stripper when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an electric stripper and experienced pole dancer. Ramona agrees to take Destiny under her wing to teach her the ropes and team up to increase their pay. The Great Recession strikes as the pair find a groove, costing them the brunt of their livelihoods. With less disposable income to go around, fewer customers are visiting the strip club and fewer yet are spending an excessive amount of money there.
Destiny leaves her job at the club when she gets pregnant. Years later, when Destiny fails to secure another job, she returns to the club. The nature of stripping has changed, though, as women working at the club are now willing to exchange sexual favors for a few hundred dollars. With no other avenue, she and Ramona turn to an illegal scheme: drugging men they meet at the club and charging their credit cards to the limit.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria based Hustlers on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores.” Hustlers is (more or less) a true story. Julia Stiles portrays Elizabeth, the film’s version of Pressler, as a conflicted but understanding journalist interviewing Destiny and Ramona about their story. Wu’s Destiny is the audience’s entry point into the unfamiliar world of stripping. The performance is good, and sometimes great, but Lopez takes center stage as the fearless, ostentatious Ramona. Garnering some Oscar buzz, Lopez has taken the art of the Oscar campaign to the next level by signing on to perform the Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira.
Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) are Destiny and Ramona’s partners in crime, and Palmer and Reinhart steal more than just credit card information, owning a few of the film’s most memorable interactions. The club’s dressing room is stocked with a cast of colorful characters including Liz (Lizzo), Diamond (Cardi B), and Mama (Mercedes Ruehl). Lizzo’s recent pop culture explosion means that Hustlers couldn’t have gotten her at a more opportune time.
While Hustlers goes full-bore Martin Scorsese, backing nearly every scene to recognizable bangers, Scafaria declines to use its connection to several famous artists to bolster its soundtrack, leaving off any tracks from Lizzo, Cardi B, and Lopez. Scorsese is synonymous with rise-and-fall crime thrillers, but the legendary director turned Hustlers down, allowing Scafaria the rare chance to step in as a woman directing a movie about women, starring women. For the first time in recorded history, the absence of Scorsese may have been a blessing in disguise.
Scafaria’s reflection on the financial crisis is another first, concentrating on those affected by the economic downturn instead of those who caused it. For an extraordinary group of working women, the profiteering was turned on its head by exploiting the exploiters. For the rest of us, there will be no vengeance. We’ll have to live vicariously through that isolated incident for some semblance of satisfaction. Fortunately, Hustlers is the ideal vehicle.