“Hustlers” isn’t just a story about ex-strippers performing a series of heists aimed at the Wall Street con-men who tanked the economy. It’s also not just the best movie of 2019 (though to this writer, it is most certainly that). “Hustlers” is a time capsule. It conjures magic through the story it tells in that specific way only cinema can — by plunging the viewer directly into the characters’ world. Its set design and costuming give the movie a distinct texture, evoking a highly specific place and time — in this case, New York City during the financial crash of 2008. Everything from the bedazzled “Bebe” T-shirts to the Juicy Couture sweatsuits, to the tanning beds, to the massive handbags, evokes an early aughts culture of fast fashion and glitz. “Hustlers” is a glittery movie, start to finish, but it doesn’t sparkle like a diamond — it sparkles like a rhinestone.
The excess and the kitsch is the point, and the film is a masterclass in how to build a sensory world for the characters (and by extension, the viewers) to inhabit. Brilliant performances and an electric script by director Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler”) fill that world, but a significant piece of the film’s power is derived from how real it feels. Nothing is more evocative, however, than the music of “Hustlers.” My theory is this: If you listen to the soundtrack start to finish with an ear for context and history, you’ll be treated to a complete economic history of the late 2000s in the United States. I can’t think of any film that uses music better or more intelligently than “Hustlers” — not just in recent memory, but ever.
“I guess I’m just a people person.”
The very first words we hear in “Hustlers” aren’t spoken by a character, they’re sung by Janet Jackson. She sings: “This is a story about control,” as strip club newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu, “Crazy Rich Asians”) peers at herself in the mirror before heading onstage. Within the first 10 seconds, we understand something fundamental not just about Destiny, but about the act of stripping itself and what it means to her. Later in the film, in voiceover, Destiny explains that when the high-flying financiers of Wall Street come to the club, it’s likely “… the most honest transaction he’s had all day.” Money changes hands, more clothes come off. Simple enough. But because this is a story about control, Destiny learns to manipulate that interaction to her advantage, to use her looks and her brains to control what men think of her.
She learns these skills from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, “Second Act”), a veteran stripper who’s introduced while dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Fiona sings, “It’s a sad, sad world / when a girl will break a boy just because she can,” as Ramona performs gravity-defying feats up and down the pole, and the stage floods with cash. “Criminal” was written in 1996 by Fiona Apple when she was 18, allegedly in just 45 minutes, when her management team said her album lacked a hit. They made a video featuring Fiona rolling in her underwear around a dirty apartment filled with sleeping, half-naked people, and the song was a smash.
It’s fascinating the way “Hustlers” repurposes “Criminal,” a song about voyeurism and desire written by a teenage girl who was presented to the world to be ogled. It invites the viewer to see both the song and Ramona through a different plane on their respective prisms. The power of Jennifer Lopez’s physical performance and her obvious dominance over everybody looking at her in the scene teases out the wryness and the irony in the song. Lines like “I’ve got to cleanse myself of all these lies ’til I’m good enough for him” become winking jokes, because how could Ramona, a person with a presence that fills the room, a person so in control, ever wonder if she’s good enough for the men tucking money into her underwear. It’s a laughable question. The song also brings out a seriousness to Ramona, a plea for redemption for the people she would go on to hurt. “Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done” indeed.
“2007 was the fucking best.”
The first act of “Hustlers” takes us through Destiny’s rise to the top with breakneck speed. She learns quickly from Ramona, and makes good money. Each moment of success — Destiny’s first shopping spree, being invited to swanky parties, buying her dream car — is punctuated with a montage and an early 2000s club song. It’s a dizzying tour of the pop charts in 2007, with songs like Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls,” and in easily the best cameo of the last decade, Usher’s “Love in this Club.” As the music plays, wads of money are zipped into knee high boots, credit cards are swiped, apartments are purchased and giant designer handbags are bought with massive stacks of singles. These songs aren’t chosen just for nostalgia’s sake, or even just to remind us that it’s 2007 on the movie’s timeline. It’s excess in its purest, giddiest form, but it’s excess rendered on two fronts. They spend money like they’d always have it, and the music matches that idea. Early 2000s club radio had an ease and a buoyancy to it, as though joy was a limitless currency. There was no darkness in 2007’s Top 40 because, as Destiny says, “For one last moment, everything was so glamorous and so cool.”
There’s a scene in the film where Destiny and Ramona are sitting in a car in a Cadillac dealership, decked out in their new purchases — big gold hoops, fur coats, perfect makeup. Destiny decides she’ll buy the car, turns on the radio to celebrate and “Gimme More” by Britney Spears blasts through the speakers. The pair immediately starts dancing, and then we cut to a Wall Street trading floor, where panic ensues. Britney’s voice is robotic, almost post-human as she sings, “Gimme gimme more /gimme more / gimme gimme more” over footage of massive banks hemorrhaging cash. It’s the perfect culmination of the excess of the music and culture the movie showed us just a few moments before.
“Gimme More” was released at a time when Britney Spears was sick of people touching her, sick of people judging her. So she threw away the premise that she was supposed to be respectable, threw away the idea that she was supposed to fit into any preconceived notions about what a young woman in the public eye should be. She shaved her head so people would stop looking at her and she altered her voice under layers of digital distortion to release one of the great pop statements of the 21st century in the form of Blackout. It was the end of an era in music — dance songs that hit the charts were uncomplicated from here on out. There was an aggression to “Gimme More” that songs like “Beautiful Girls” just didn’t have, a darkness and danger to it. When Destiny and Ramona dance to “Gimme More” in the Cadillac, they’re intoxicated with the idea of wanting and getting more, maybe even seeing themselves in lines like, “Cameras are flashing / we’re dirty dancing / they keep watching.” But they fail to hear that “Gimme More” isn’t just a celebration — it’s also a warning.
“Hands where we can see ‘em.”
If “Gimme More” was an inflection point in the pop charts turning them incrementally darker, “Royals” was the true sea change. Lorde’s 2013 debut wasn’t just a massive hit, it was also a key moment in defining the textures and fabrics of the pop music landscape for the rest of the decade. EDM drops and “hands in the air” hooks were out. Trap hi-hats and low, smoky vocals were in. The ease and lightness of early 2000s dance pop was a thing of the past. It’s not a coincidence, then, that “Royals” is used to mark the true end in “Hustlers” of the reign of Ramona and Destiny. The song starts playing in the film as Ramona walks down the street to take out cash at the local ATM, and by the time she turns around, she’s surrounded by police officers, ready to arrest her. All the women involved in the scheme are arrested one by one, and when the song ends, the bars of the holding cell slam shut. It’s clear it’s the definitive end of an era, not just for these women, but for a moment in pop culture as a whole. “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us,” Lorde sings right as the rhinestone sweatshirts and massive designer bags stop making sense in the world of “Hustlers.”
When we see Ramona next, she’s working at Old Navy and wearing a flannel shirt. There are little details that tell us she’s still herself: Her nails are still perfectly pressed and glamorous, her makeup is flawless and her hair is still long and shiny. But she looks different, a little sadder and a little wiser. Destiny too, looks different. Her house in 2015 is pristine and white and so are her clothes, but she has none of her old glamor. Her hair is chopped short and she wears cardigans instead of fur coats. Her house looks straight out of a Crate and Barrel catalogue.
Their worlds have changed, not for better or for worse necessarily — “Hustlers” is far too complicated a movie to make those kind of value judgments — but their worlds are quieter now. Less flashy and less sparkly. Ramona and Destiny’s aspirations for a specific kind of wealth have been put through the wringer not only by the financial crisis, but also by a world and a culture that’s changing around them in real time. Their dream of living a life glittering with the crystals and diamonds Lorde sings about are dashed — reduced to nothing more than a fantasy. Sure, there were moments when they had everything they wanted, when everything was so glamorous and so cool. But for now, they’re not caught up in that old love affair. At least, until the next heist.