Reel talk: Lorene Scafaria’s star-studded “Hustlers” hustles its way into your heart

A neon pink and purple sign depicting a woman sitting above the word "hustlers."
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

This article contains spoilers.

If a story about former strippers scamming wealthy Wall Street clients doesn’t pique your interest, picture this. It’s 2008, and Lizzo, playing a stripper, runs into the dressing room of a New York strip club as her nipple tape shimmers underneath her mesh dress.

“Motherfucking Usher is here!” she shouts.

The room immediately empties as screaming women rush to the stage, and we are immersed in a blissfully intoxicating slow-motion moment set to Usher’s 2008 hit “Love in This Club.” 

The women — a delightful cast featuring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo as strippers — crowd the stage in a hazy cloud of sequins, neon light and money. Lopez lies on the front of the stage and playfully coos, “What’s your name?” to which a grinning Usher replies, “Usher, baby.”

But the thin veneer of glamour shown in this scene dissipates when the 2008 financial crisis puts a damper on the club’s business, whose clientele consists mainly of Wall Streeters. The wealthy regulars, sobered by the stock market crash, are suddenly less willing to part ways with their cash. When the clients disappear, Destiny (played by Wu) and Ramona (played by Lopez, in a role she was born to play) devise a plan to keep the men coming to the club, and the men’s money coming to them.

Based off a true story told by journalist Jessica Pressler in her article “The Hustlers at Score,” “Hustlers” follows Destiny, Ramona and their team of recruits as their unconventional business venture — drugging men they find at bars, bringing them back to the strip club and racking up their tallies as high as their credit limit goes — devolves from a seemingly harmless and highly lucrative romp into a reckless mess. 

The film is engaging from start to finish because of how easily it moves between humor and drama. “Hustlers” is darkly funny as it critiques an economic system that glorifies unbridled wealth for some and produces financial instability for others. 

But the film is equally touching and dramatic in its portrayal of female friendship and motherhood. A story like this could have been grossly mishandled, but writer and director Lorene Scafaria does an excellent job at humanizing the women and their occupation as strippers.

Beyond touching on the socioeconomic conditions that led the characters to stripping, Scafaria also depicts the strength of the community that the women form to combat an otherwise hostile environment. This narrative shines through in scenes set in the strip club dressing room, which emanate warmth and charm.

Indeed, Scafaria is decidedly on Destiny and Ramona’s side, even as their operation gets increasingly out of hand. The closing scene in which Ramona declares — with all of the defiant spunk that Lopez exudes — “This whole city, this whole country, is one big strip club” is simply powerful. 

Perhaps it’s Scafaria’s apparent hesitancy to take a critical eye to the women’s desire for material excess — and the cultural forces shaping that desire — that result in the film getting carried away with its own opulence. The latter half is saturated with more than enough montages of luxury shopping sprees. 

In Pressler’s article, the woman that Destiny’s character is based on, Roselyn Keo, remarks that “American culture is a little fucked up” while musing about materialism and greed. Although this commentary on American culture is a bit muddled, the story of Ramona’s and Destiny’s relationship — beginning as mentor and mentee, then evolving into friendship, a business partnership and ultimately ending in turmoil — is what grounds the film.

Lopez’s tour de force performance, on the other hand, lifts the film up and gives it irresistible energy. Regardless of the questionable moral dynamics at play, you leave the theater in utter admiration of Destiny’s and Ramona’s tenacity. Although their hustle was ill-fated, the ending still felt satisfying, a testament to the powerful allure of the film — and of money itself.

Rachael Diamond SC ’21 is TSL’s film columnist. She’s a philosophy major who enjoys talking about movies to anyone who will listen. 

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