“Hustlers,” a semisweet, half-flat cocktail of exposed flesh, fuzzy feminism and high-spirited criminality, overflows with of-the-moment pop-cultural signifiers — Cardi B makes an appearance, and Lizzo does, too — but it also strikes a note of nostalgia for the recent past. Specifically the movie, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), looks back fondly at 2007. Back then, before the financial crisis interrupted the fun, Wall Street guys were making a lot of money, a decent amount of which found its way into the hands and under the G-strings of New York strippers.
As the movie tells it, the high point of this era — remembered as “the last great night” by one of the participants — arrives when the R&B idol Usher (playing himself) rolls into the club where the main characters work, sending dollar bills raining down on the delighted dancers. The scene is a slow-motion bacchanal, a tableau of pure glamour and delight, a snapshot of carnal-capitalist utopia. It softens some of the struggle and sleaze that we’ve already witnessed, and justifies the entrepreneurial larceny to come.
Our guide through the highs and lows of this world is Destiny (Constance Wu), who is telling the story of her career to a journalist. (“Hustlers” is based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, whose fictionalized counterpart, called Elizabeth, is played by Julia Stiles.) Raised by her grandmother in Queens, Destiny finds her way to a cavernous Manhattan skin palace with multiple stages, throbbing music and an endless supply of thirsty guys in suits. The job isn’t much fun until she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a larger-than-life figure who takes Destiny under her wing.
More literally, Ramona envelops Destiny in her luxuriant fur coat, a gesture that is maternal and sexual, campy and collegial all at once — an indication of Ramona’s complicated charisma. Ramona is warm, vain, ruthless and unpredictable, and Lopez gathers her contradictions into an incandescent one-woman spectacle. Lopez, a pop-culture legend in her own right, doesn’t so much peel away the layers of her stardom as repurpose them, channeling her exuberant physicality and her quick-witted self-assurance into a performance that is finely calibrated in its realism and brazen in its theatrics. You need made-up adjectives to convey the fusion of craft, nerve and energy that she pulls off: She’s Denzelian, Pacinoesque, downright Anna-Magnanimous.
“Hustlers” itself, unfortunately, doesn’t match the scale or audacity of what she does. Ramona is a big, bold, volatile personality inhabiting a story that is small, tentative and risk-averse. A few years after the crash, after an unhappy relationship has left Destiny raising a child on her own, she reunites with Ramona, who also has a daughter and who has found a new way to make money. Instead of working the pole and the V.I.P. rooms, she and Destiny — along with their colleagues, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) — scour the city’s bars for men of means who can be lured back to the strip club and parted from their credit cards.
Eventually the game shifts from a con to something more felonious, as the women, rather than plying their marks with drinks and winks, slip knockout drugs into their cocktails and empty their wallets and expense accounts. It’s not exactly a victimless crime, but “Hustlers” brushes off any serious ethical qualms, partly by making the men, for the most part, interchangeable jerks in an indefensible line of work.
Which would be fine if the movie had the courage of its populist convictions. But class struggle isn’t really at stake any more than gender equality is. The spirit of “Hustlers” is so insistently affirmative and celebratory that all kinds of interesting matters are left unexplored.
Scafaria makes it clear that she is on Destiny and Ramona’s side. They are loyal friends, devoted mothers, comfortable with their bodies and their choices. All of which is welcome, given the long tradition of treating strippers as easy objects of titillation and moral hand-wringing. But the movie seems to view any examination of its characters’ motives, their working conditions or the consequences of their actions as a kind of betrayal. There are feints in the direction of realism and social inquiry, but every time she might dig a little deeper into Destiny’s inner life or Ramona’s relationships, Scafaria falls back into bubbly girl-boss montages and luxury-brand consumer fetishism.
The problem isn’t a refusal of judgment, but rather an absence of perspective, a have-it-all-ways approach to the material that feels evasive. Late in the game — when the game is pretty much up — Ramona asserts that “this whole city, this whole country, is one big strip club,” a metaphor that would be more provocative if the movie had backed it up, had showed any real curiosity about the moral, economic and erotic transactions that keep the hustle running. But maybe that’s the lesson: The money keeps flowing, and nobody’s ever really satisfied.
Rated R. A lot of what a lot of men would pay a lot to see. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott
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