The strippers take off their clothes in “Hustlers,” but they also take some of their clients for hefty sums. Like the recent “The Kitchen,” Lorene Scafaria’s movie, based on a real episode, is a rather curious addition to the female-empowerment genre in that it celebrates women taking charge of things even if it means going to a very dark—indeed, criminal—side. But to add to their supposed justification, it posits the notion that their victims—all Wall Street types—deserved what they got after the role they’d played in ruining the lives of so many in the economic collapse of 2008, and then getting away with it scot-free. Apparently one bad turn deserves another.
Scafaria’s screenplay is based on Jessica Pressler’s article “The Hustlers at Scores,” which appeared in New York Magazine in 2015. (Pressler here becomes a writer named Elizabeth, played by Jessica Stiles, who is shown interviewing the ringleaders of the operation for her article.)
In her somewhat altered narrative, the two women are called Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Dorothy, aka Destiny (Constance Wu). It’s around 2007, and Ramona is the effective headliner at a NYC strip joint called Moves, where her pole-dancing routine sends the well-to-do crowd of boozing Wall Street executives wild; they shower her with cash. She and the other established performers add to their loot by meeting in the back rooms with the clientele, who pay handsomely for some alone time with them, though much of the money actually goes to the place’s sleazy owners.
Newcomer Dorothy, who supports her aged grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), is awed by Ramona, who proves to be remarkably supportive, offering to train the younger woman in her act. Before long, the two are practically partners, and they—and the other girls at Moves—are making out pretty well, though they’re still being victimized by the club owners, and of course by the clients who treat them like mere merchandise.
Then comes the economic crash of 2008, which sends Wall Street reeling, and in the wake of the financial district’s implosion Moves goes into a complete tailspin.
In desperation Ramona argues that they can no longer rely on the clients coming to them; they have to go fishing, meeting guys in bars and bringing them back to the club. In the end, however, that’s not enough: the women—Ramona and Destiny, along with their “sisters” Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, work out a routine in which they gang up on a likely prospect, doping him up and bringing him back to the club, where the women can extract the credit cards from his wallet and max them out. The presumption is that the victims will be too befuddled—or embarrassed—to call the cops.
The operation works splendidly for awhile, and the women prosper. But inevitably they’re done in by their very success; as they add new “talent” to the pack, including girls like druggie Dawn (Madeline Brewer), caution goes out the window and disaster eventually strikes. A sad-sack mark, here named Doug (Steven Bayer), goes to the police, and that begins the process that leads to the women’s arrest—and their turning against one another. The actual indictments in the real case were issued in 2014.
This is actually a pretty sad, indeed rather squalid tale, but Scafaria plays it mostly for laughs, though there are certainly moments of drama. Much of the humor is of a fairly dark sort, though during the Moves sisterhood’s glory day there are some gleeful celebratory sequences, most notably a Christmas party at which the women exchange expensive gifts and have a splendid meal in a posh apartment. Scenes like this are often presented by Scafaria and her editor Kayla Emter in a montage of hyper-cut clips, and elsewhere too (as in the women’s raucous dressing-room interludes) the style is highly energetic, with Todd Banhazi’s cinematography in frequent jerky, hand-held mode.
That approach, of course, is especially appropriate in the dance numbers, especially Lopez’s initial—and quite spectacular—pole routine; set as it is among colorful strobe lights, loud music and screaming drunks, it gets things off to a rousing start.
But her onstage moves alone don’t distinguish Lopez’s performance. She makes Ramona a vibrant, defiant but flawed person whom you can appreciate for her determination even as you question many of her choices. Wu is more subdued, and as such a good counterpart to her, especially as their relationship goes south; and the other members of their sisterhood—especially Palmer and Reinhart, but also Cardi B and Lizzo—pull off both the outrageous and poignant sides of the characters. Mercedes Ruehl has a few good moments as the group’s quasi den mother, and Ho some as Destiny’s not-so-straitlaced grandma. Stiles, unfortunately, is merely impassive and dull. The men don’t fare even that well, mostly being portrayed as either crude, rude, blissfully blotto or, in the case of the cops toward the close, goofy.
There’s a great deal of visual flamboyance to the way Scafaria has chosen to tell the “Hustlers” story, and you can appreciate the vitality of its coarsely freewheeling approach; at the same time, the tonal shifts are jarring and unconvincing. Comparison with Andrew Brujalski’s “Support the Girls” from last year, a much smaller and more sensitive film about women exploited for men’s pleasure—this time at a “Hooters”-style roadhouse—suggests that for all its pizzazz and energy, “Hustlers” skims over the surface of what’s actually a pretty disturbing story. Of course, for many the picture’s wild-eyed combination of glitz and gleeful revenge will be enough.