Inspired by the 2015 New York Magazine article The Hustlers At Scores by Jessica Pressler, writer-director Lorene Scafaria delivers an ambitious, exhilarating and finely-executed comedy-drama. After cutting her teeth on romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and mother-daughter tale The Meddler, she steps up considerably with this real-life exploration of New York strippers who turns the tables on their clientele.
Constance Wu, star of the recent Crazy Rich Asians, takes the lead as Destiny, a single mother who just wants to support her child and grandmother when she takes a job as a pole dancer in a high-end strip joint frequented by wealthy Wall Street brokers. Soon enough, she’s taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a glamorous dancer and club legend who teaches her much in the art of strip-club seduction.
Things change, however, when financial crash of 2008 hits and the high rollers stop throwing their dollars bills around. Desperate for cash, Ramona lures Destiny into a scam. Joining with fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), this quartet set about seducing wealthy men in bars, drugging them and taking them back to the club, where they then max out their credit cards.
Set between 2007 and 2014, Scafaria also interweaves flash-forwards of an interview between Destiny and a journalist (Julia Stiles), reflecting on her rise and inevitable fall. The whole experience owes a huge debt to the work of Martin Scorsese, in particular Destiny’s voiceover-explanation of the inner workings of the strip club reminiscent of the director’s 1995 classic Casino.
At the heart is a terrific performance from Lopez, who probably hasn’t been this good since Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Making an unforgettable entrance into the film, she dominates every time she’s on screen; other stars – musicians Cardi B and Lizzo, for example – barely get a look-in. But Scafaria is smart enough to ensure that Hustlers remains an ensemble that brims with sisterly talent.
Thematically, Scafaria paints the Hustlers story as a microcosm for cash-crazy America. As Ramona bluntly says, “This whole country is a strip club.” Reflecting on gender, capitalism, wealth and sexuality, it’s a surprisingly layered piece for a film that, on the surface, looks like a diamond-encrusted, hip-hop-scored heist movie.
Hustlers opens on 13 September. For more details, visit STX International.
1. Stills from Hustlers.