The first time Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) meets her soon-to-be protegee and business partner, Dorothy (Constance Wu), she asks her a pretty simple question: “Doesn’t money make you horny?”
Just a few seconds before Ramona’s iconic line, she was lavishing on a stage flooded with one-dollar bills, thrown by powerful men with bad intentions. Hustlers, a star-studded comedy-crime movie based on the infamous New York Magazine feature about the New York strippers who scammed rich Wall Street men by drugging them, revolves around money, and the power associated with it. There are the lush scenes showing the glamorous side of capitalism — if you’re lucky enough to be there — dripping in wads of cash, bottles of champagne, and expensive shopping. There’s the smart commentary on the power dynamics associated with money, gender, and one’s socioeconomic upbringing. There’s the crime story drives the timeline of the film.
But the biggest heart of the story is with Ramona and Dorothy, who share a friendship and business partnership so close you could call them family (which they do — “We’re a family now. A family with money!” Ramona exclaims). We’re taken through all the different stages of their friendship, from their first conversation when Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing (or rather, her giant fur coat) to their heart-wrenching breakup, a scene so loaded with layered emotion that you could feel every bit of pain and confusion and love in Dorothy’s crumpled face and Ramona’s sendoff hug — a brilliantly choreographed half-hold, half-push embrace that serves as visual testimony for the complexities of their relationship.
Hustlers is good at drama, knowing what to accentuate, and when, and how. The very first scene of the film is one extended shot of Dorothy getting ready for the night’s work backstage before entering the crowd, followed by a series of quick clips of her tasks (which include waiting for a man to finish thrusting his clothed hips into hers, dancing on stage to an inattentive crowd, and greeting egotistical Wall Street customers with a smile) spliced together for a sense of mundanity.
It feels like every scene in Hustlers is given this kind of careful attention, save for when the film jolts itself to the present without warning. Dorothy, dressed in a sleek, all-white ensemble in a brand new setting, talks to a journalist about the story we were just watching on screen. It’s the only moment in the movie that feels slightly dissonant, and at times, it’s questionable whether or not the journalist’s perspective is even necessary for viewers to understand Dorothy’s story, or if it’s just an unwarranted nod to the movie’s magazine origins.
But there are still compelling reasons for keeping the journalist — named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) in this movie — as a character. At one point, as it feels like Elizabeth is starting to unfairly judge Dorothy and her coworkers for the things they’ve done, Dorothy asks Elizabeth if she was wealthy growing up. “We were comfortable,” Elizabeth responds, the last word laced with heavy implications, namely that money in a capitalist society shapes almost everything. At another point, Dorothy shuts off Elizabeth’s recorder after being asked a fraught question and shows her out the door. The movie goes completely silent — a reminder of who should be in control of this story. It might be a big claim, but Hustlers is one of the most important and well-crafted movies of 2019, explicitly challenging class and gender dynamics in a highly-entertaining and smartly-edited package.
Now playing in Century San Francisco Centre and various theaters.