J. Lo’s “Hustlers”: Who Pays For the Dance?
There is lots of buzz surrounding the initial success of “Hustlers.” The film stars Jennifer Lopez, as the impressively callous ringleader, Ramona Vega, who literally and figuratively envelops Destiny, played by a perfectly wide-eyed Constance Wu, with her mink fur coat. The compelling story is about the value of friendship, neatly wrapped into a revenge flick where the ’08 Wall Street guys finally get screwed. It’s a reckless romp until the consequences of their criminal actions crash down on top of them as well. The film is being widely recognized for its diversity casting, successfully passing the Bechdel test, and themes of female empowerment—although, not all would agree. The project inspired backlash from some sex workers as well as Samantha Barbash, whom the character of Ramona, is based on.
In a revealing interview with Vanity Fair, Barbash talks about how she was impressed with J. Lo, but not the film itself, and why she opted to not participate in the production. With or without Barbash’s blessing, “Hustlers” continues to drive ticket sales at the box office. Much of the film’s momentum prior to its opening weekend was generated by its dazzling all-star cast and cameos, including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Tracy Lisette, Lizzo, Usher, and Cardi B in 10 on-screen minutes of comedy gold. It should also be noted that Lisette, once a former stripper herself, is also Trans. In a fascinating sit down with NewNowNext.com she discusses the choice they made to leave her character’s sexual identity open to interpretation.
The movie comes equipped with a smartly put together soundtrack, is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, has amassed $77.5M worldwide so far within its 14-day release. It’s also been reported that the film’s director, Lorene Scafaria, ensured the strip club scenes were shot inside an actual strip club, featured real strippers, and that consultants were used for authenticity. For all intents and purposes, the production has all the markings of a designed-for-awards-season vehicle for its stars.
But like all things “adapted” from other source material, the film struggles to assert itself fully, opting for the “lite” version of events, something Barbash laments. At its core, “Hustlers” is an earnest retelling of a 2015 New York Magazine article titled “The Hustlers at Scores,” which is about the complicated relationship and subsequent fall-out between two female business partners who con rich men out of millions. In the role of Ramona, J. Lo carries herself with a measured steadiness that is refreshing. The scene introducing her character is one of the films most stunning sequences. One in which Lopez is given enough room to flex her prowess as a master student of dance, all choreographed to the foreshadowing tune of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” When she’s finished and begins to make her exit, she leans over to a starstruck Destiny and says, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” In a way, she’s asking the audience, “Don’t I?”
Destiny and Ramona make an unlikely pair, but the maternal empathy with which Romana approaches their relationship can often be perceived as controlling. That tug of war becomes the underlying fault line in their dynamic. Ramona shows Destiny the ropes. As she learns, she settles into the club life finally escaping the perils of being broke, but it’s all curated in the way Ramona sees fit. When the economic crash of 2008 decimates the Wall Street clientele, cutting into the profit of the clubs, many women are forced out of the scene to look for “legit” work. Destiny tries to make it in the regular world but struggles. Desperate, with a baby and stuck in a tumultuous relationship with an unreliable fiancé, she returns to the club.
Upon her return, Destiny reconnects with Ramona and quickly joins several women in a plan to use their expansive rolodex to fish for well-off finance guys. They meet them at local bars with the intent of shuffling them back to the club, high on a mix of MDMA and ketamine, so they can run up their credit card tab to the max. In real life, the women took it as far as recruiting prostitutes from Craigslist in order expand their racket. When the conned would call to complain about the bill, Ramona would weaponize their shame by leaning into the potential embarrassment from their sins if they were to be exposed. It’s a fascinating flip of the script. Their marketing plan works and the scheme becomes highly lucrative for all involved. Until it goes awry.
As the house of cards begins to fall, with an informant looking for a plea deal that threatens the entire set up, the film switches gears by aspiring to grander themes even though it doesn’t fully settle into any one in particular. It chooses to stay largely unblemished, rather than push further into the dark even though we know there’s more to the story. We are left wanting more, but the dance is over.
“Hustlers” is in theaters nationwide with a runtime of 1 hr. 50 mins.