There’s this moment, about halfway through “Hustlers,” when Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, “Second Act”) is taking a photo of her young mentee Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, “Riverdale”) to lure a Wall Street guy to meet them. “Turn around baby,” she tells Annabelle. “You know what he wants.” Annabelle turns around, looks over her shoulder and touches her index finger to her lip, smiling coyly. Ramona snaps the picture and within seconds, the guy asks her when and where she wants to meet.
It’s not a particularly important moment in the grand scheme of the movie, but it’s emblematic of a sense in “Hustlers” that women are experts of their own bodies. They know exactly how to calibrate the shape of their hips and the curves of their smiles to get what they want. They understand intimately the currency their bodies provide, and exactly how volatile that value exchange can be. “Hustlers” is a complicated story that navigates friendship, stripping, the financial crisis of 2008, sex and power. But if there’s a central conceit at the heart of the film, it’s about how women navigate that tricky, constantly moving target that is the intersection between their bodies and the profit they can extract from them. It’s a singularly American story, about how women shoved to the margins of society claw and fight their way to make it in a world that sees them as disposable. It would be a disservice to the complexity of the film to call it “empowering,” but it gives a voice to a group of women who are usually denied space or agency in Hollywood. Their story is remarkable.
Based on the real life exploits of a group of ex-strippers, “Hustlers” is centered on the perspective of young stripper Destiny (Constance Wu, “Crazy Rich Asians”), who joins with seasoned veteran Ramona to build a crew of fellow strippers who steal money from the high-roller finance guys who frequent their club. Ramona is a force of nature — charismatic and brilliant, sexy and sharp as all hell — and Destiny is entranced by her from the moment she lays eyes on her, working the pole to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” as the stage under Ramona’s feet becomes awash with bills.
Ramona wraps Destiny in her lush fur coat and takes her under her wing. She teaches Destiny how to give a proper lap dance, how to hoist herself up the pole, how to spot the men who will pay well. Mostly, she shows Destiny how to make real money in the exploitative system of New York City strip clubs, where the girls are the draw but all the profit ends up in the pockets of scummy managers who take 40 percent cuts from all the dancers’ earnings. Ramona has a daughter to take care of, Destiny has a grandmother. They bond over the ferocity of their protectiveness over their dependents and over their need to be self-sufficient. Destiny starts making good money under Ramona’s tutelage, and she finds a community among her fellow dancers who have a warm, familial banter in the club’s dressing room.
Then Destiny gets pregnant, and she leaves the club. A couple years pass, and suddenly it’s 2008. The market has crashed, her baby’s father leaves her, and Destiny starts dancing again. Except now the rules have changed. The clubs are empty of clients and the warmth among the dancers is gone. Ramona and Destiny have to start getting creative.
“The game is rigged,” Ramona says. “And it does not reward people who play by the rules.” So they recruit a couple of other girls, Annabelle (Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer, “Pimp”), to help them “go fishing,” or find rich men at high end New York bars to lure back to the strip clubs. Once they get them to the clubs, they get the men as intoxicated as possible, and start racking up the credit card charges. Destiny becomes the CFO to Ramona’s CEO — or the Kobe to her Shaq, as the women themselves put it in the film. It doesn’t take long for them to up the stakes. They concoct a new drug cocktail to slip into the men’s drinks to make them more malleable and willing to give up their cards. They graduate from taking $5,000 a night from one of their marks to $50,000. Together, they’re absolutely ruthless in the influence they exert over the other girls in their crew, and over the men they steal from. It’s modeled off of classic mob cinema, but this mob is a matriarchy, specifically run by and for women of color. Like any pair of good mob bosses, Destiny and Ramona’s relationship builds to a Shakespearean intensity in a swirl of designer clothes, money, blood and sweat. The highs are intoxicating. The lows will gut you.
It’s difficult to overstate how deeply excellent this story is. Watching it feels like a zap of electricity, like you’re made privy to the very best of what entertainment can do. Granted, it would be very difficult to make a bad, or at the very least non-entertaining, movie based off of a story this intrinsically strong. But everybody involved in “Hustlers” knocks it out of the fucking park, and every aspect of production is as brilliant and careful as it possibly could be, from the pitch perfect casting to the rhinestoned costumes and the legitimately transcendent soundtrack. Make no mistake, this movie is a masterpiece. There isn’t a wasted second or a dramatic beat that’s not earned.
“Hustlers” is already a huge commercial success, which is unsurprising given how much unadulterated fun it is to watch, with all its delicious sleaze and sparkle, punctuated by a slew of sexy dances and shopping montages set to early 2000s pop and rap. This accessibility as a piece of pop art is crucial to the film’s urgent, glittery genius. The legibility, the sleaze, the sheer joy of watching “Hustlers” allows it to act like a Trojan horse for one of the sharpest commentaries on the post-recession economy to ever hit the theaters.
In that way, “Hustlers” is a lot like the women themselves, hiding their incisive intellect and business acumen under layers of fake lashes and contoured cleavage. But then, maybe they prefer it that way. Maybe it’s in their best interest to be underestimated, because after all, these are powerful men they’re targeting. Executives. Hedge fund managers. The high rollers at the tops of skyscrapers directly responsible for the poverty and desperation of the people below. But it doesn’t matter how weighty his gold watch is, or how diverse his stock portfolio. Each man they choose is utterly leveled, not only by the women’s bodies or the sprinkled drug cocktail, but by the precision with which they expertly construct a fantasy that reduces him to a lolling, drooling mess at their feet. They’re too smart, too hot, too good at what they do — experts in the politics of money and the body. He never stood a chance.