Movie Review: 'Hustlers'
I find it fascinating that I still occasionally hear people use the phrase, “well, in this economy,” to describe why they can’t afford something, even though the Great Recession actually ended 10 years ago. The global financial meltdown left deep, deep scars.
The new movie Hustlers stars Constance Wu, who you may remember from Crazy Rich Asians, as a new recruit in a high-end strip club in New York City. Early on, a title card shows us that the year is 2007, which made me think, “that’s an interesting time to set a movie,” until I realized that a large part of the club’s clientele was made up of predatory Wall Street types, and I said to myself, “uh oh, this could get bad.”
Wu is taken under the wing of the club’s biggest draw, Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez, who shows her how to use the men’s compulsion to abuse and dominate to extract more and more money from them, and for a time, they’re riding high. Then, of course, 2008 hits, every market everywhere crashes, the club loses most of its business, and the women hit very hard times for a few years. Then, around 2011, Wu runs into Ramona again and discovers she’s found a way to get back to living in luxury, albeit this time by rather more criminal means.
Hustlers has a fairly familiar story arc, though the differences in details are what sets it apart from similar films. For one, this story is nearly always told about men, but this is definitely a movie about women, and all the constraints, obstacles, and specific interpersonal dynamics that come along with being a working woman. It’s very much a movie about work and the exploitation that necessarily comes along with that. And, refreshingly, it’s a movie that depicts sex work without demonizing or even delegitimizing it, though it’s also very conscious of the difficulties inherent in the trade.
More than all that, though, it taps into the anger many people still feel toward those who brought about the devastation of the recession—it’s telling that we feel little sympathy toward the hyperaggressive Wall Street execs the women rip off as they build their criminal enterprise post-2008. As Ramona says, those men are the ones who caused this and not a single one of them went to jail. That’s not something many people easily forget.
Constance Wu is just fine here, but I’m not sure she’s at the point yet where she can lead a movie that includes an utter powerhouse like Jennifer Lopez. Lopez’s career has been strange enough that that might seem like an odd statement, but remember that she was doing great work in the late ‘90s with movies like Selena and Out of Sight, before being apparently more or less blackballed after the total disaster of Gigli about 15 years ago. And then, further remember that her costar in that movie, Ben Affleck, didn’t experience the same career downturn. Interesting.
But in Hustlers, Lopez shows how stunning she can be as an actor—she doesn’t chew the scenery, but she absolutely owns every second she’s on screen, and it’s noticeable when she’s not around. She’s a total gravitational force, and there’s no question why Ramona is such an irresistible presence.
As I said, Hustlers is not thoroughly original on its face, but the particulars of it help it to rise above the typical good-times-turn-to-bad narrative, and we’re given the opportunity to see people and situations that aren’t normally given the layers they warrant. And with dozens of slo-mo shots, infectious club music, high fashion, and a solidly charismatic cast, boy oh boy, it’s got style to burn. Many, many people were crushed by what happened 11 years ago, and so few were ever really noticed. These women were some of them, and their story deserves to be heard.