review: hustlers is a fun yet thesis-less crime story
Updated: Feb 28
Staff writer Sam Gee reviews Lorene Scafaria's junior feature, Hustlers.
You know that blurry meme of the guy in the yellow sweatshirt? The one where he’s slapping on some yellow sunglasses, grinning like he just got away with something shady? Hustlers is Yellow Glasses Guy: The Movie, punctuated with slo-mo softcore porn and celebrity cameos (is that G-Eazy? etc.), sustained by Jennifer Lopez’s stunning performance. Adapted from a New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows the strippers Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Dorothy (Constance Wu) as they and their friends gently relieve stockbrokers of small fortunes during drug-fueled nights at the club. As the 2008 financial crisis tears through the city, Ramona offers the desperate Dorothy a chance to make thousands per night off Wall Street stockbrokers – as long as she’s willing to accept serious criminal risk.
I enjoyed watching Hustlers. I did. Ramona and Dorothy’s relationship, from colleagues to partners to bitter acquaintances, humanized the movie. America runs on sex and money, and they’ve figured out a way to beat the system until it spurts Benjamins. It’s them against the world. They clink glasses of wine at Christmas dinner. There’s a surprisingly funny scene where the two try to cook their own knockout drug in Ramona’s kitchen and wind up zonked on the floor. They party with their crew in top-floor Manhattan hotels. Ramona adorns herself in fine coats and considers starting a denim swimwear line. Dorothy plops fat wads of cash in her grandmother’s grateful hands, finally knowing she can provide for her child. They laugh as they swindle the finance suits who wrecked the country. They’re like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood could dangle himself from a pole using his thighs alone.
I wish I could stop there. Hustlers works best as a hedonistic middle-finger to America’s excess. (Can’t beat ‘em? Screw ‘em and take their cash. It’s what they do to you, after all.) It falters when it tries to dive below the glitz. Sure, Ramona and Co. are empowered, but empowered to do what? Steal from the rich to give to Versace? Roofie robber barons? The film never troubles itself with the fact that its protagonists make their fortune through sexual assault. Strange, considering that Cardi B, who disappears after the first few scenes, weathered her own drug-and-run scandal in March. Characters occasionally give a few snide shots against “crony capitalism,” but their quips are either too fragmentary (bankers deserve it!) or too exact (dude, listen, this whole country’s a strip club) to make an impact. And why, for the love of God, did we need to sit through that tedious slo-mo scene where Usher makes it rain? I wish the movie had spent less of its budget on celebrities (is that Lizzo!?) and more on exploring the tension between Ramona and Dorothy’s apparently conflicting stories. I wish the movie had spent more time teasing out its moral and social ambiguities. Ramona and Co. are young women of color; their victims are old white men. Ramona and Co. navigate shitty relationships with shitty men who use them as bodies. They make money by drugging, stealing from, and occasionally assaulting nameless, exchangeable men. Dorothy loves flexing her newfound power as a rich seductress with money to burn; her interviewer, also a woman, is clearly disgusted by her story. What does Hustlers have to say about any of this? Nothing. I don’t think the movie paused to consider any of it. The film distracts us from its rich and knotty ethical questions with club montages and bar sequences.
And we get it. Girls just want to have funds. Strippers get a bad rap, and it’s nice to see them taking no crap for their profession. The whole country’s a strip club. Strip or be stripped. It’s the People vs Wall Street – are you really going to side with the fat cats? No, but I would’ve liked Hustlers to give me the choice. ❐
Samuel Gee is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.