The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) impacted the world in all the worst ways it possibly could. Cinema is now telling the stories stemming from its immense impact and has been for throughout this decade. Those inhabiting the seedy underbelly of Wall Street are who so many films rightly vilify and target. But what, up till now, went unspoken for on the silver screen, was the new breed of criminal the GFC brought on by virtue of the dread and desperation it generated. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers tells that story, a true one at that, adapted from Jessica Pressler’s article on two women who, after years of legitimate work in strip clubs, decided they had no other choice but to drug and steal money from wealthy men.
The film alters their names to Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Destiny is a youthful, almost innocent, figure when we first meet her starring into a back room mirror of her new working establishment. Quickly she is awed by the sheer amount of cash Ramona is thrown during a single stage dance, there’s so much she knocks it off the stage and doesn’t even blink. Wisely Destiny approaches her for guidance, and on a rooftop with one fur coat warming them both the unassuming beginning of a legitimately chilling group of criminals occurs.
This was 2007 when Wall Street was simply bursting with cashed-up men more than happy to unload money on any woman who would even look at them. Infamously though, things took a turn for the worse. As the harshest of the impacts from the GFC began to hit in 2008, being a stripper became much less profitable, and in amongst all the chaos, Destiny falls pregnant and moves away, not seeing Ramona again until two years later. Here, in what was a fateful meeting for the struggling Destiny, Ramona cuts her friend in on a scheme that kept her more than afloat during impossibly hard times.
The original plan of Ramona and her minions (Depicted here by Lili Rinehart and Keke Palmer) reeks of being criminal but likely falls into some messy legal grey area. It was simple, they got rich guys drunk enough to get them back to the club, then convinced them to blow all their money there, and all the while the women were receiving a sizable cut of all the spending.
This is a practice colloquially known as “fishing”. When regular fishing began to fail, thanks to too many men managing to keep their wits about them, Ramona turned to a concoction of her own making, described to us as part Ketamine, part MDMA. “Just a sprinkle” as both the article and the film say, and it was as simple as that. Suddenly, after ingesting their spiked drinks, targeted men would end up so zoned out that they could be robbed blind, and none of them would ever have it in them to go to the police, and more than likely they wouldn’t even remember what happened.
Throughout, the film sporadically cuts us back to Elizabeth (Julia Styles) who is interviewing Destiny in 2014 about their fishing and how they came to it. And all too soon for the characters of the past, her questions begin leading us to their downfall. In watching this, I saw so much of Goodfellas in the story; everything is very much about how Destiny defends what she tells us she did.
The film is rather sympathetic to her, which is where the two films heavily differ. However, both lead to one same inescapable conclusion, each set of characters get caught and found to be the criminals they are; they are condemned, as they should be. When this moment comes for Destiny and Ramona, they fall forever away from grace, and into far less lavish lives, just as Henry Hill did.
Constance Wu shines as Destiny, she is the least trustworthy of narrators just as she should be, and her evolving arrogance forming to make her so untrustworthy comes across great on screen. But it truly is Lopez who steals the show with an utter powerhouse performance. In Hustlers, everything comes back to Ramona, from the beginning of their little gang to its bitter end on account of her trusting the wrong person, Ramona is all-encompassing, and so is Lopez.
If it weren’t for how often Destiny seems to protest that she did nothing wrong it would be easy to see Ramona as the only true criminal of this film, everything was her idea and she knows it and loves it. It’s all about side hustle ideas. Yet when all is said and done, her humanity shines through, and we find she did care for Destiny all along. As the film says, “She didn’t get into the business to make friends, it just happened”, and it just happening is why she feels so much guilt come the end. Lopez embraces all of this, and in doing so, delivers her most exceptional work ever.
Hustlers is a thoroughly entertaining view of crime in a post GFC era ruled by desperation. Come the credits all are depicted as the criminals they are, even if sometimes it feels as though the film didn’t want to.
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