Destiny and Ramona, Manhattan-based strippers, forge an unlikely bond at work based on running up unsuspecting customer’s credit cards in a bid to stay afloat during the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a scam that works really, really well… until it doesn’t, with crazy results and far fewer consequences for the women than one would guess.
Hustlers, based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article, The Hustlers At Scores (that later went viral on The Cut), is the astounding true story of Roselyn Keo and Samantha Foxx, two dancers that came up with a bold plan to drug their strip club patrons with a mix of MDMA and ketamine in order to encourage them to part with their money. (The MDMA “keeps them happy” and the ketamine “helps” with their memory – i.e. by erasing it.) The women justified their actions by mainly targeting wealthy Wall Street traders, figuring that these men stole from the American public (given that Wall Street was largely responsible for the great housing crash that caused the financial crisis), so why not take some of that money back? Their highly-successful crime spree almost went unpunished, since they banked on the fact that their victims would be: 1. So rich that they’d barely miss the money. 2. Too embarrassed to admit they’d been fleeced by a cadre of women, and thusly would not report the incident. And they were right, until they finally hit upon one customer with nothing left to lose, who ultimately called the cops.
The film version of this already wild tale is nothing short of stunning, with Constance Wu playing Roselyn Keo (named Destiny in this adaptation) as the broken, shy dancer that Jennifer Lopez’s character (Samantha Foxx, renamed Ramona for the movie) takes under her wing. Ramona is the mama bear of the club, effortlessly dominating both the pole and the backstage with her beguiling presence, well-liked and well-respected in a line of work that rarely offers women either option. All is flush in the world of Scores, with dollar bills falling like requisite rain, and everyone happily making a living. But then the housing market tanks and it is devastating. The club that once welcomed a steady stream of big spenders is suddenly all but empty. This is when Ramona hits upon the magic mix of drugs (“just a sprinkle”) and targeting the remaining rich businessmen. She and Destiny team up for the adventure and are soon the “Kobe and Shaq” of the dancing underworld. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on who you ask) it’s a scheme that’s too good to be true and it all falls apart in a most spectacular fashion.
Speaking of spectacular, Jennifer Lopez OWNS the screen. There’s already Oscar buzz for her turn as Ramona, and it’s well-deserved. (The potential campaign currently mentions her in the Best Supporting Actress category, but she’s the lead by my estimation.) J.Lo is known for her booty, and it’s worth the price of admission to see it on…um… the big screen. But it’s her acting chops that will keep you glued to your seat with her flair, ranging from subtle (her invitation for Destiny to share her fur coat is sublime) to rage-fueled. That Lopez showcases her flawless body as 50-year old woman is just the icing. In an industry that casts actresses of this age as grandmothers – if at all – J.Lo is once again pushing boundaries for the better.
Adding to the sparkle is a great cast, including smaller roles for a luminous Cardi B (as Diamond) and Lizzo (as Liz), plus Riverdale cutie Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, one of the core crew to help Ramona and Destiny with their grift. Keke Palmer, as Mercedes, is a force unto herself and needs to be in everything. It’s also great to see Julia Stiles again, playing the role of the journalist who broke the story (the aforementioned Jessica Pressler, named Elizabeth for the film). Her character provides a voice of reason in the aftermath of the glitz and grit of Destiny and Ramona’s actions.
Constance Wu presents a pricklier pick. She brings the brokenness of Destiny to life – forced to take the job dancing in order to support her grandmother and, later, a daughter she has with an absentee partner. But she fails to bring the heat of the real Roselyn Keo. Keo remains whip smart, with a smirk still simmering beneath her surface, even now as a suburban mom. Meanwhile, Wu’s portrayal of Destiny/Roselyn is much more passive, and it left me wondering how the men would fall so easily for her act. Constance’s agent secured her top billing, even over Lopez, but first place on the marquee doesn’t translate quite as smoothly – and definitely not next to a smoldering J.Lo.
But this film is ultimately about female empowerment and control, both onscreen and off. The project is helmed by a female director, Lorene Scafaria, who wrote the screenplay, and also includes Kayla Emter as the movie’s editor and Jessica Elbaum as a producer. Jacq the Stripper was hired as both a consultant and background dancer. The use of Janet Jackson’s catalogue is also a sly nod to a powerful performer whose career was unfairly sidelined by scandal and misogyny, making the use of her tunes all the more impactful here. In fact, the entire soundtrack is incredibly clever, and it’s worth paying attention to each song as a Greek chorus of what’s to come.
Hustlers is a well-timed release, with its pithy mantra ringing all-too-true, “The whole country is a strip club. Some people are tossing the money, and some people are doing the dance.” The game is rigged, and you don’t have to look too far to see who’s winning.
Don’t wait to stream this at home – head to the theater and make it rain at the box office for this hardworking crew. It definitely delivers the bang for your buck!
Hustlers (2019) Extras:
Hmmm: for the use of the Keeping Up With the Kardashians footage. It’s not hard to extrapolate the meaning here…
Hmmm: for Usher’s hilarious meta cameo. Priceless!
Hmmm: for comedy fans – see if you can spot Dov Davidoff.
Hmmm: No extra scenes, but the voiceover of a bouncer emptying out a club is entertaining and brilliant. See yourself out!
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