There’s no irony and no wink of recognition in the way the lurid tale of “Hustlers” is transformed into a feel-good one. The film, which an opening title card says is inspired by a true story (one reported in New York magazine, by Jessica Pressler) of a scam pulled off by a group of strippers, tells of money, power, sex, deceit, and crime. It’s filled with fascinating incidents and fascinating characters, whose activities, both legitimate and criminal, involve enough hungers and desires, insight and self-delusion, rises and falls, morality and amorality, to launch a fleet of tragedies, melodramas, and sardonic comedies. As written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, the movie offers enough moments of sharp emotion and keen perception to keep anticipation high throughout. Yet the movie stays on the surface, to yield, for the most part, a simplistic, unexplored celebration of characters who are molded to fit the story’s amiable tone.
“Hustlers” is told largely from the point of view of Dorothy (Constance Wu), a relatively inexperienced dancer at a strip club. The action begins in 2007, when Dorothy (her stage name is Destiny), who lives in Queens with her grandmother, starts working at a Manhattan club called Moves, where there’s money to be made from Wall Street men, who fling it around casually. There, a charismatic and canny veteran dancer named Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes Dorothy under her wing, mentoring her in pole-dancing and in strategizing her interactions with the club’s clients to manage their drinking and maximize their spending. As another colleague, Diamond (Cardi B, who’s brilliant in a brief role), teaches, “Drain the clock, not the cock.”
Quickly, the movie leaps ahead to 2014, when Dorothy is being interviewed by a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). We learn, in the course of their conversations (and in the extended flashbacks that illustrate them and provide the bulk of the movie’s action), that, after the 2008 financial crisis, the business at Moves dried up. By 2011, Dorothy has a daughter, Lily, with her boyfriend, Johnny (Gerald Earl Gillum), and, after she and Johnny break up (it’s never clear why), she needs a job and goes back to Moves, where she runs into Ramona again. It’s then that Ramona brings Dorothy in on a scheme, which she calls “fishing,” in which she and a pair of other dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) lure men to Moves (never disclosing that they work there, or that they’re dancers) and ring up their big spending, of which they get a cut. When the four women’s “fishing” expeditions, too, prove unreliable, Ramona comes up with a new scheme—a blatantly illegal one. She decides to spike the men’s drinks with a blend of ketamine and MDMA, so that, in a stupor, the men will hand over their credit cards, their bank cards, their PINs, their social-security numbers, and other personal data, enabling the women to max out or clean out their accounts. But, by 2013, other women from Moves are competing at the same scam; Ramona and Dorothy pull out of the club, take their operation freelance, hire other women to work with them, and ultimately—after a moderately suspenseful cat-and-mouse game of police surveillance and a sting operation—get caught.
With their routines of seduction, their chatting and their luring, Ramona, Dorothy, and their other colleagues, are, in effect, expert actresses performing offstage. Strangely, rather than luxuriating in the verbal ingenuity and perceptive ploys with which the women pursue clients, Scafaria merely states that they do so, as in a scene of Dorothy’s first talk with Ramona, who explains her success with a shrug: she’s a “people person,” she says. At other moments, the director waves off the women’s extraordinary performances with their clients by way of mere hints. A montage shows one man entering a luxury car and another exiting it from the other side, with no detail of what’s happened inside. In another illustrative montage, one or another of the women in Ramona and Dorothy’s circle chats men up with opening lines that, unfortunately, mark the end of each scene rather than the beginning.
“Hustlers” reminds viewers, again and again, that these women are good at what they do. It lets them tell one another as much, and it shows them reaping the profits (sometimes modest, sometimes lavish) from their talents. But it is hardly interested in the turns of mind, the character traits, the figures of style that go into their complex and difficult nightly labors. For instance, early in the film, Ramona expounds, for Dorothy’s benefit, her taxonomy of the club’s three kinds of Wall Street clients: the lowest level of broker, she notes, is easily manipulated, and one of them, a man named Chuck, has been paying for her Manhattan apartment, though she has never even “sniffed his dick.” This in itself is an amazing story; the relationship between Ramona and Chuck, which takes place apparently outside the club—but on which such a crucial part of her life, and even of her livelihood, depends—could be a movie in itself. Instead, their dynamic is never seen at all.
Dorothy gets similarly, if less decisively, involved with a man named Steven (Devin Ratray), who, from an early conversation at the club, suddenly provides her with a computer, which is more or less their sole and brief subject of conversation. (The movie cuts from that chat to her suddenly using the computer, out of nowhere, on her dressing-room table.) The continuities and discontinuities between the performances onstage, in back rooms, and even at home—because, it’s pretty clear, the women in the film literally have to take their work home with them—are left out of the story completely, along with the psychological aspects of sexuality that are inseparable from those performances.
The movie’s interview format is an inspired framework with vast dramatic potential, and, at first, it seems to build multiple layers of tension into the story: whether Dorothy’s account meshes with what actually happened, whether what Dorothy tells Elizabeth meshes with what she herself knows, and whether the story Dorothy tells is different from the one that Elizabeth tries to elicit. It’s “a story about control,” Dorothy says, in a brief opening voice-over. Yet any differences between Dorothy’s memories and her interview account never play into the drama; her inner life never comes into the movie. Just how closely the action follows her account is displayed when Dorothy reaches across the table and shuts Elizabeth’s recorder—and the movie goes silent for the rest of the scene. Instead, Scafaria sets up several strong thematic tentpoles—especially an emphasis on the fraudulence, even criminality, of the financial businesses that fund the men who pay for the dancers’ services, and the dancers’ self-justifying view of the desperate measures that they take (as if in compensation for the Wall Streeters’ predatory practices). The very nature of the women’s own criminal enterprise, meanwhile, is kept prudently offscreen. For instance, it’s pretty clear that part of their operation is, in effect, a prostitution ring; it’s suggested that some of the women whom they hire are providing sexual services, away from the club, to the men they’re scamming. How they divide the money, the relationships of bosses to employees that link Dorothy and Ramona to other women whom they bring in on the scheme, how they end up taking a cut or doling out a share of the take to these other women—in effect, playing, on their own terms, the roles of their employers at Moves—isn’t depicted in the movie at all. As for the ethics of drugging and robbing men, Ramona is portrayed, according to Dorothy’s description of her in an interview, as unprincipled and reckless, whereas Dorothy expresses concern for the victims—she wants to be choosy about the targets and careful with the dosing.
“Hustlers” is full of fierce but facile critiques of modern American capitalism, yet it spends much time and energy celebrating high-end shopping and indulgence in luxury goods. (One of the best moments in the movie comes during a visit to a fancy store: under Ramona’s tutelage, Dorothy is now making good money, and she buys herself a fancy handbag, which she pays for by counting out a large stack of singles, as a snooty salesclerk looks on sniffily—until Ramona calls her out.) The crucial bond of the two women, and of their relationships with the other women in their circle, is their delight in luxury items: the employer-employee relationship and the partnership are sealed with Louboutin shoes, a chinchilla coat, a handbag. The festivity of shopping and the delight in its fruits unfortunately take the place of more thoughtful, deeply rooted, and crucial traits of character.
Even the relationship that provides Dorothy’s main motive to earn money—her relationship with her grandmother, Nan (Wai Ching Ho)—is left utterly empty. The elderly woman is portrayed as a stereotypically passive and genial elder, until, briefly, at a party chez Ramona, she lets fly with a flash of wry reminiscence (Dorothy seems neither interested nor surprised nor even involved). Likewise, the relationship between Dorothy and Ramona—the one on which the narrative depends—remains unexplored. Moreover, it’s never clear what motivates Dorothy to talk with the journalist in the first place. During one fine moment, Dorothy challenges Elizabeth’s ability to understand her, on the grounds of their socioeconomic differences: she asks Elizabeth whether she came from a wealthy family (Elizabeth answers no), what her parents did (father, a journalist; mother, a psychiatrist), where she went to school (Brown). Yet here, too, the matter is vaguely and quickly dispatched.
This shallow and rushed approach has consequences for the film’s performances. Lopez brings energy, determination, and sheer charisma to the role of Ramona. But, because the movie is told through Dorothy’s narration (by way of the interview with Elizabeth), Lopez’s lead role is, in effect, turned into a supporting one. Lopez doesn’t so much build a character as inhabit, with strength and flair, one that’s ready-made; her sense of presence is extraordinary, but it’s not given much scope by the narrowly defined role or the choppy, hasty camera style. By contrast, the script and the direction don’t do Wu any favors: with the movie set up around her reminiscences, much of her time onscreen is spent embodying a mere information-delivery mechanism, one that evades the psychology of Dorothy’s perspective and of her role as the story’s central consciousness, Wu plays the nominal lead role, but Scafaria gives her little of the dramatic material implicit in that role to work with; as a result, Dorothy remains undefined, the cipher at the center of a feel-good story of friendship, family, and shopping.