NOC Review: ‘Hustlers’ is No Scam

To put it in TV terms, director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is perfect for viewers who liked the crafty chaos of Walter White and the motherly desperation of Good Girls. The sexy crime dramedy stars Constance Wu (Dorothy/Destiny) and Jennifer Lopez (Ramona) as New York strippers who, in the wake of the 2008 recession, must find a new way to make ends meet when dancing isn’t enough.

They devise a plan to drug and rob the men who would be indulging in illegal substances and vying for their attention anyway. Get them just high enough to still want to have fun, but with enough memory loss to not remember passing over their credit cards and social security numbers to their sexy companions. The club owners cut a deal with the girls, who got a cut of the hiked up profits. As the scheme becomes a business, Ramona and Destiny are set at odds on the best way to stay in the game.

Just like on Breaking Bad, desperate times call for desperate measures when the recession hits. Ramona and Destiny become equal conspirators in their plan. There’s even a scene that reminded me of Breaking Bad: with the women adjusting the formula for the MDMA/Ketamine concoction (which may hit them a bit too hard in one batch). Ramona even takes a bite out of Walter’s spiral into a more ruthless nature, dismissing Destiny’s concerns about their methods of procuring their bait, and who they begin to include in their shenanigans. Unlike Walter, however, Ramona’s genuine love for her girls, who become her family, keep her grounded and keep her from ending up like Heisenberg. 

For fans of NBC’s Good Girls, the movie mirrors the show’s deep female companionship and fierce motherly dedication to doing whatever it takes to make sure your kids have what you don’t. There’s a wonderful familial bond between Ramona and Destiny, that they share with Mercedes (Kiki Palmer), Anabelle (Lilli Reinhart), who becomes their main accomplices, as well as the other girls who work at the club. You see why they feel committed to this life, and why, when their life begins to crumble, they become so desperate to find a new solution. We also see the community that forms for these women who have little else. But they also have fun. Despite its fall release, I henceforth proclaim Hustlers a Christmas movie, since there is quite a long Christmas scene, where the girls spend the day at Ramona’s, with presents, meals, laughs, and dancing. The love between these characters, who in any other story might be strictly presented as rivals, was wonderful to see. 

Overall, there’s a clear sisterhood among all the characters, but Ramona and Destiny’s relationship is even more complex than just a sisterly connection between desperate women. Their relationship is in almost equal measure romantic, sibling, mother/daughter, friend, mentor/mentee. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez are shining stars in crafting this unique bond. They broke my expectations for their characters nearly every time they were on screen.

In a typical movie about dancers who need to compete to make the most money, I was constantly expecting one or both of them to backstab the other, to not really mean their friendship. But when they meet, new girl Destiny — who clearly wants to move up in the world of exotic dancing — isn’t just buttering Ramona up to learn the moves and become better than her. And Ramona isn’t scouting out the new girl and pretending to make friends before making her a fool.

Both characters are presented as great performers, a necessity in their line of work, so I expected each to turn on the charm to get what they wanted before quickly dumping the other. I eyed their interactions with suspicion. However, Ramona and Destiny constantly surprised me with the earnestness their characters possessed towards each other that I was expecting to breakdown into anger and rage. Even when it does, the affection they have for each other still simmers beneath the surface in a way I rarely see between female characters on screen. 

Hustlers is a fun movie that elated me with its care for the women in such private and intimate positions: in society, as sex workers, as peers, as actors being emotionally and physically vulnerable on screen. It was clear through many scenes that having a female director handle this story mattered. Kudos to Lorene Scafaria. If you’re looking for a sexy revenge fantasy that reflects on the 2008 financial crisis that many of us are still reeling from, one that doesn’t throw marginalized people under the bus first, Hustlers is a worth the money.