When sleaze is not considered sleaze, it’s coupled with sisterhood. That’s the premise of Lorena Scafaria’s flesh & feminism chronicle, revolving around sex workers in a New York strip club.
Inspired by a 2015 “New York” magazine article about Scores nightclub by Jessica Pressler, their story is revealed from the perspective of Destiny (Constance Wu), recalling it to a journalist (Julia Stiles).
Raised by her grandmother in Queens, Destiny has a high-school GED and no discernable skills. So she dons a G-string and glitter pumps to lap dance a strip club. Soon she’s dazzled by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who takes Destiny as her protégé – enveloping her in a luxurious fur coat one wintry night.
First, Destiny must learn pole dancing, which Ramona demonstrates with stamina and skill. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Lopez purrs amid the neon fantasy. Then there’s 2008’s stock market crash, and Wall Street spenders are more difficult to fleece.
That’s when Ramona and Destiny recruit Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) to seduce gullible, hardy-partying guys into the strip club where they slip knockout drops into their drinks in order to empty their wallets and max out their credit cards.
An entire scene is devoted to how – with girlish glee – they cook up the MDMA-ketamine concoction they use on their marks. “Just a sprinkle,” Ramona instructs them.
Rather than cast moral judgment on their actions, writer/director Scafaria celebrates their female empowerment, relishing their solidarity and loyalty to one another. Plus, there’s the big-screen debut of former Bronx stripper Cardi B, along with Lizzo and Usher cameos.
Eventually, the NYPD catches onto their con, and the four women are charged with grand larceny, forgery, conspiracy, and assault. Since they serve little or no jail time, Ramona’s concludes: “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”
With charismatic J Lo, at least it’s a step up from Showgirls (1995).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Hustlers is a spiky-sly 7, a stripper scam.