The movie Hustlers contains multitudes. Based on the true story of a gang of strippers who got rich scamming Wall Street guys, Hustlers is most obviously a revenge fantasy about the working-class striking back at the 1%. But while that revenge fantasy is satisfying, what makes Hustlers memorable is how, at its emotional core, it’s a love story about female friendships, and how devastating it can be when they end…
The film is framed by a series of interviews with the gang’s leaders Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Portrayed by Julia Stiles at her most patrician, Elizabeth, the reporter researching the women, is a stand in for Jessica Pressler, who wrote a real-life viral article upon which the film is based. Before the story really gets underway, these conversations reveal the two protagonists are now estranged. Subsequently, a series of flashbacks show how Destiny and Ramona met, and how they fell deeply in platonic love.
The pair of strippers cross paths one night in 2007. They strike up a conversation on the club’s balcony in a meet-cute worthy of the sweetest romantic comedy. It’s cold out and both women want to smoke, but Destiny doesn’t have a jacket. When Ramona offers to share her voluminous fur, it’s clear the ladies have a connection. Soon, veteran performer Ramona is teaching her new bestie the art of pole dancing, and how to smuggle tips out of the club so management can’t demand a cut. The club may be run and frequented by men who exploit them, but these women survive by working together.
After the 2008 stock market crash, the Wall Street guys who used to make it rain at the club have much shallower pockets. Of course, they got off easy compared to the average American. As Ramona points out, these dudes are corporate criminals who destroyed the American economy, and never paid a cent. So Ramona and Des hatch an income redistribution plan that involves finding rich guys, drugging them with a mix of ketamine and MDMA, then racking up their bar bills. In no time, the ladies go from working-class to filthy rich!
While the scenes of debauchery and luxury retail therapy that follow are a rollicking good time, director Lorene Scafaria takes care to show these women aren’t frivolous. They appreciate a good designer handbag, but their top priorities are always providing better lives for their kids and looking after aging relatives. The gang is also fiercely protective of one another. As Ramona tells the women she recruits, “we’re a family,” a family so close, they celebrate Christmas together.
Of course, every family has conflicts, and the titular Hustlers are no exception. There’s friction when Ramona and Des disagree about who makes a fair target or whether to expand the team. Like any two people who love each other, their relationship is not immune to stress, especially in a world of high-stakes crime where there’s always the possibility the police will cotton on to the entire operation.
A lesser director than Scarfaria might have made Hustlers a one-dimensional romp where a cast of hot ladies show off their sex appeal, but little else. However, Scarfaria’s cleverly made a movie about strippers seen primarily through the Female Gaze. When the women pole dance, Scarfaria often shows those routines through the admiring eyes of other dancers, as opposed to the sleazy Male Gaze of clients who refer to Asian strippers as “Lucy Liu” and try to extort free fellatio. Hustlers has both respects and empathy for the women it represents. When Brown-educated journalist Elizabeth questions the ethics of their operation, Des shoots back, “What would you do for a thousand dollars?” The answer, she explains, depends on what you already have.
However, the most compelling parts of Hustlers come when we see Ramona and Des grieve for each other. Lopez and Wu are given the screen time to mourn the loss of their friendship, perhaps the most tragic casualty of their entire criminal enterprise. Both actors capture the pathos of losing one’s platonic life partner through subtle performances that may not – but certainly should – earn them Oscar nominations.
More than any movie of the past decade, Hustlers understands how losing a friend can hurt more than than losing a lover…