For the first 15 minutes of Hustlers, I did not blink.
That is probably not entirely unexpected. Most reviews of the dramedy, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria – based on a New York Magazine feature about a group of New York City strippers who conned and drugged wealthy clients to stay afloat in the dizzying aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – have begun with talking about Jennifer Lopez’s entrance, a signature pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” At Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién likened it to Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. In Variety, it’s described as Lopez’s version of Erin Brokovich via Mathew McConaughey’s performance in Magic Mike. Nearly everyone agrees that after an almost 25 year movie career, it’s time to take Jennifer Lopez seriously as an Oscar contender. And it all starts here – with this one number.
Lopez’s Ramona Vega saunters onto stage in a sparkling G-string leotard and sailor’s hat. She’s in control. Fiona croons, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” Ramona offers up coy smile, a seductive hair toss, the slow glide of her impossibly smooth legs, the brawn of her back. You see only what Ramona wants you to see – how she wants you to see it. It’s sexy only because she allows it. Jennifer Lopez has never been captured more alive on film. Incredible strength and energy reverberate from inside the very cells of her body. Have you ever been dumbfounded by beauty? Then you’ll understand what I mean when I saw those 90 seconds are nothing short of art.
When it’s over, Ramona gathers her bills. She lowers her voice at Hustler’s protagonist, Constance Wu’s Destiny, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Destiny looks back at her like she’s God. I wanted to scream.
So yes, Jennifer Lopez’s entrance in Hustlers is better than any of us could have dreamed. But days later, the scene that won’t stop playing in my head happens almost directly afterwards, on the rooftop of the club where Ramona and Destiny work.
It’s there that Lopez stretches out like a Renaissance painting, clad in her performance leotard and sequined platform heels with only this absolutely stunning fur coat to keep her warm. She’s lying there, carefully perched, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by pipes and grime. Yet, drowning in the New York City night sky, a tableau has never felt more glamourous.
Destiny stumbles onto the roof, breath caught in her throat as she takes in image in front of her.
“Come on, climb in my fur,” Ramona purrs.
Supposedly, this is the first scene that Scafaria wrote. Destiny, lost in a pool of awe and desire. Ramona, equally nurturing and manipulative. Destiny wanting to please, and Ramona all too willing to take. The intimacy of their shared, mingled breath caught beneath that fur coat. Hustlers’ central relationship distilled into one, perfect second.
Looking at Ramona, I understood – I would risk it all for her. Which is to say, 15 minutes into the movie and I already knew that we were done for.
Before we go any further, you have a right to know this: I love Jennifer Lopez. I love Jennifer Lopez in a way that you can only love her if you were a ten-year-old Latina who walked from seeing Selena in theaters directly into the local CD store (remember CDs?) and begged your Mom for the soundtrack. I love her the kind of way you can only love her if you were an 12-year-old Puerto Rican who learned how to salsa to “No Me Ames” before the seventh grade dance on your kitchen floor. I love her only in the way you can love her as a 32-year-old queer Boricua who still rocks hoop earrings almost as big her head because that’s Jenny from the Block did when she taught you Love Don’t Cost a Thing, and dammit – you believed her.
I love her only in the way you can love her if you grew up with a Caribbean Latinx family that bestowed the nickname La Reina onto her, a name that’s otherwise only saved for Celia Cruz and Rita Moreno – once in a generation women who fundamentally changed the ways that Latinas saw themselves and their possibility.
You should know that up front because Hustlers is arguably the finest performance Jennifer Lopez has ever given, and there is no way for me to be unbiased about that fact. There have only been a handful of actresses who’ve had Lopez’s innate ability to understand exactly how to make the camera fall in love with her. Even in the worst of her films (and sure, she’s had quite a few of those) – you can’t turn away. Hustlers thrives in part because it takes that ability and weaponizes it.
Her performance is as magnetic as it is layered, loving and warm as it is fearsome and dangerous. There’s a moment in Hustlers’ third act where she walks away from the still-steady camera in a black Juicy Couture sweatshirt that becomes, on her body, more like armor than loungewear. Even without seeing her face, she bleeds power. Ramona always sees the chess board – but you can’t stop from only seeing her.
Hustlers is a girl gang dark-comedy thriller with a star-studded cast and a delivered promise of a deliciously good time. It could have rested on its laurels and I would have been satisfied stuffing my face full of Reese’s Cups and watching Lizzo and Cardi B twerk in the club. Instead, Hustlers paints a portrait of the tarnished American Dream and inherent broken nature of capitalism. It asks its audience to take seriously questions of economic (in)justice and the worth of women’s lives. Obvious comparisons to Magic Mike slide easily off the tongue, as do Wolf of Wall Street (and likely most other Martin Scorsese films where love of money makes for easy justification for groups of friends to do crimes), but I believe Hustlers has a legacy with the Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda classic 9 to 5. Unlike that cult favorite, Hustlers is no satire – but it is singularly focused on the misogyny forced onto women in the workplace, and the un-breaking will to fight back against rich white men who no one else is willing to punish.
Ramona justifies her enterprise by pointing out that all they’re doing is stealing back the money that Wall Street bankers stole from working class America in the first place. And anyway, “this whole city, this whole country, is one big strip club. Somebody’s always throwing the money and someone’s doing the dance.” It’s a seductive argument.
Most surprising is that on top of everything else, Hustlers is a painstakingly detailed time capsule. I suppose I hadn’t thought of just ten years ago as “worthy of a period piece” – but every velour track suit, bandage dress, and UGGs boot sent me right back into another dimension. I appropriately freaked out and sang along to “…It’s Britney, bitch!” and the opening refrain of Rihanna’s “Cake” (cake, cake, cake, cake, cake). The joy and luxury of the first half of the film is met in strike contrast to the economic crash that looms over the second, when the recession keeps clients out of the clubs and pushes the dancers to create new means of survival.
Speaking of the dancers, so much of my review has focused on Jennifer Lopez, but it would be a mistake to overlook Constance Wu. Between this and Crazy Rich Asians, there’s no denying that she has the makings of a bonafide movie star. She picks challenging projects and rises to the occasion every time, without fail. I never doubted that Wu would kill it as Ramona’s protege, the film’s narrator, and the key mastermind behind the crime ring – and wow did she KILL IT. Destiny’s role isn’t as flashy as Ramona’s and it isn’t as funny as what Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer bring to the table as the final two members of their crew. In the hands of a lesser actress, she could have faded into the background. Instead Constance Wu becomes the quiet emotional core around which everything else spins.
Cardi B, Lizzo, and Trace Lysette fill out the remaining of the dancers. Each is given a moment to shine, but to be frank and honest – I wish there had been more (producer Jessica Elbaum has lamented that the team only had one day to film with the music stars, both were busy on tour). Still, getting to watch Transparent actress Trace Lysette finally take her place on the big screen and absolutely marvel with the little material she was given felt like a worthwhile full circle. Lizzo wearing a full-body fishnet dress with nipple tape was healing in ways I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. And Cardi… what can I say? She’s the scene stealer we all expect her to be.
Hustlers presents a profound and unexpected love letter to friendships between women – the physical intimacy we share, the rowdiness of our laughter. These women are always always touching each other, holding on, making jokes. They feel real and loved. It also stands out that the performers aren’t uniform in that Hollywood standard which fails to encompass the full range of ways women are beautiful – the women of Hustlers are cis and trans, fat and thin, curvy, black, Asian, Latina. I’m sure that was purposeful, and it’s a welcome reprieve.
I can’t say the same for Julia Stiles’ fictional take on Jessica Pressler, the journalist who wrote the story that Hustlers is based on. Framing the story of working class women, largely women of color, via the tape recorder and eyes of a middle class, “socially acceptable” white woman was both lazy and unnecessary. Time spent with Stiles would have been put to better use exploring the backstories and lives of the women we had already come to love. They didn’t need her approval to make them valuable or make their crimes more empathetic. I certainly didn’t. In fact, more than anything I found it insulting that the filmmaker felt her audience would require such a conduit to begin with.
That narrative misstep is glaring because Hustlers actually shines best when it focuses on the dancers’ friendships as necessary for their survival. They are steadfast (well, until they can’t be); they’re committed mothers and granddaughters, breadwinners of their family. But mostly, they’re mundane – Hustlers makes a point of showcasing the ways that strip clubs are a lot like other workplaces. Trace Lysette fights with her boyfriend, Lizzo plays the flute to keep her energy up between dances, Cardi wants better pay, the core four (Lopez, Wu, Reinhart, and Palmer) spend Christmas together. Behind all the performative glamor – it’s pretty boring. It’s an important counterstory to the long public tradition of treating exotic dancers as one-dimensional sex objects only worthy of fake moral outrage. Capitalism is fucked and Hustlers knows that; it never faults any dancer or sex worker for making their own best decisions in a world that values women for their bodies.
That sort of interiority into the lives of sex workers comes in part from the almost entirely woman production team behind the movie. There’s something exquisitely subversive about it – a movie about dancers, starring some of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood – celebrated from a women’s gaze. When the women dance, the camera toys with the audience the same way that a dancer might – controlling our sight, cutting in and away, playing with it. Until the third act of the film, men barely speak at all. In a movie that’s fundamentally questioning power, the camera never lets you forget who has it.
Hustlers’ production team valued authenticity – holding open casting calls to hire real life dancers as extras (Trace Lysette and Cardi B also both worked as dancers in clubs before their respective Hollywood careers), and hiring queer dancer Jacq the Stripper as their on set film consultant. Jacq told Vulture, “I felt so respected for my opinion and my expertise, coming from my background where sex work is stigmatized and considered not real work.” She went on, “It’s really important to have compassionate and authentic representation of sex workers in mainstream media. And the only way that’s going to be achieved is by hiring sex workers to play the parts and consult on these films. People are constantly shitting on me all the time about strippers being dumb bitches. It’s so toxic and it’s violent. It results in literal violence against sex workers.”
That’s what Lorene Scafaria cared about most. She echoed Jacq’s sentiments in The New York Times, adding “I just care if sex workers like it. I made the movie for sex workers. As long as they like the movie, great. If women like it, really great. And if men like it, that’s cool, too.”
At least one former sex worker loved it. Cardi B posted an Instagram live video after seeing the film for the first time, and she was near tears. She told her followers, “it got me so emotional because it took me back to a moment in life where I went through a lot of things [and] always felt so alone. The women in the strip club were there for me.”
Dabbing her eyes she reminisced, “I’m a celebrity now and everything, but sometimes – a lot of times – I always remember when I was there. I remember when I first started, how hard it was. I remember when I was building up customers… it took time for me to get there, and it took training, and it took long hard nights of dealing with dirty ass motherfuckers.” Customers would “try to hustle me any type of way. They try to hustle me out of my body.” Despite it all, it was her relationships with her fellow dancers that Hustlers brought back to the surface most, “I be feeling like nobody can hustle me anymore… I recommend every stripper see it.”
I recommend that the rest of us see it, too.