If you haven’t already seen Hustlers, you’ve probably heard about it. The star-studded cast, led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu has grossed $85 million internationally so far, and $33.2 million on its opening weekend alone (yep, that’s JLo’s best live-action opening weekend of her career). The cast includes a wide range of feminist icons including KeKe Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Cardi B, and Lizzo, and we can’t forget about the short, but much appreciated appearances of Usher and G-Eazy.
Based on a true story, Hustlers follows Destiny (Wu) in 2007, when she is forced to work as a stripper at a Manhattan club to make ends meet. When she meets the enticing and beautiful Ramona (Lopez), she takes her under her wing and introduces her to her best clients. Ramona, an ‘aged’ stripper (outside of the traditional age range in her mid-30s) is one of the club’s biggest money-makers, and shows Destiny all the tricks to get the most money in their line of work. To the soundtrack of all the best 2007 hits (Sean Kingston included) Ramona and Destiny build a deep and lasting friendship that appears unbreakable. But, following the impacts of the 2008 recession, they finally do break apart; the profits of the club dwindled and the two women were forced to part ways. Destiny goes on to give birth to her daughter, while Ramona remains in the business, finding her own ways to make ends meet. When the two meet again after a chance encounter, Destiny learns how exactly Ramona has been making money, and she wants in.
Destiny and Ramona, along with coworkers Mercedes (Palmer) and Annabelle (Reinhart) come up with a scheme to attract men (typically married, rich, Wall Street types) a feat which isn’t exactly legal. What began as simply encouraging these men to go to the strip club, soon turned into the use of “just a sprinkle” of ketamine and MDMA to force them to max out their credit cards. While at first this brings them all the riches they desire, things inevitably take a turn for the worst. The whole narrative is framed by Destiny in the present tense, telling her story to skeptical journalist Jennifer (Stiles) based on the very real Jessica Pressler, who published the tell-all article about the real-life ‘Hustlers’ ladies which you can read here.
The girls, Ramona especially, justify their scheme by painting the group as modern-day “Robin Hoods” – they take from the rich, misogynistic upper class and give to, well, themselves. Ramona claims “The game is rigged, it does not reward people who play by the rules.” The issue of socioeconomic disparity in America is a major theme of the film, demonstrating how the “rags to riches” story that once brought people the American Dream is no longer possible for many. The social ladder is steep, if not impossible, to climb. Regardless of the complex and ethically perplexing undertones, Hustlers is an intense, nostalgic (reminiscent of the 2000s era Brittney Spears and Juicy Couture), empowering (strong female friendships for the win), and thought provoking film. While it takes place in a strip club, it is not over-sexualized, the focus on the film being on the women and their struggle for success. The framing narrative of the modern-day interview is cross cut beautifully with flashback scenes. The soundtrack and editing couldn’t have fit the plot better. And let’s not forget that 50 year old Jennifer Lopez can still dance (and look!) like she’s 25.
Towards the end of the film, Ramona professes that “this whole country is one big strip club,” implying that those who work the hardest and do the most good don’t always get their cut. This multifaceted metaphor can be interpreted many ways, raising issues related to gender, socioeconomic disparity, crime, morality, and the distribution of wealth in America that is relevant in our society today more than ever.