Jennifer Lopez apologised for how she smelled. That light waft of cigarette smoke, she said, gesturing with a faux-tattooed arm. Maybe it was her, maybe it was embedded in the white couches and plush carpeting, here on the 29th floor of a midtown Manhattan high-rise. Either way, the mood was set.
It was near the end of shooting for ‘Hustlers’, a spiky-smart drama in which Lopez plays a single mother from the Bronx — “so that comes easy,” she said — and a stripper extraordinaire who masterminds a scheme to con her Wall Street clientele out of money by nearly any means necessary. A moment later, she and her co-star, Constance Wu, were filming a scene in which they cook up the MDMA-ketamine concoction they would use on their marks.
“How much?” Wu, playing a newbie named Destiny, asked. “Just a sprinkle,” Lopez, as the wily, cigarette-dangling Ramona, advised.
The writer-director, Lorene Scafaria, watched behind the camera, surrounded by sheets of aluminium foil flaked with prop drugs. It’s only the third feature she’s made, and the flashiest by far. ‘Hustlers’ is based on a real-life tale, which appeared in New York magazine in 2015, about a crew of high-end strippers in New York who — after their customer base deflated thanks to the 2008 recession — found creative, and illegal, ways to keep business going. (They were eventually caught.)
Though the story dates back a decade, its themes — gender dynamics, economic inequality, sex, cash and female solidarity — resonate richly now. So much so that the movie is being rushed into theatres less than six months after filming ended.
‘Hustlers’ is the big-screen debut of Cardi B, herself a former stripper from the Bronx, along with appearances by of-the-moment artists like singer Lizzo; actress and trans advocate Trace Lysette (‘Transparent’); Lili Reinhart (‘Riverdale’); and Keke Palmer (newly announced as a host of the third hour of ‘Good Morning America’).
Note the absence of a leading man: There really isn’t one.
For Scafaria, 41, that was the lure of the source material. “Because it was like every good story that you ever read — but with women in it, naturally,” she said. “It wasn’t something that had to be manufactured into an all-female anything.”
No shade to ‘Ocean’s 8’, but the ‘Hustlers’ girl gang radiates a lot more campy fun, especially in the prelapsarian years before the recession.
Here’s the sly superpower of ‘Hustlers’: It’s serving us a Hollywood stripper romp but pivoting to show that life from the women’s point of view. Witness JLo, with her bikini bod, wrapping an adoring Wu into her fur coat on the club rooftop — the very first scene that Scafaria wrote. It plays up Mama Bear relationships in a way that felt familiar to Lopez. (“They call me Ma a lot, the people that work with me,” she noted.) But it’s also transactional, an unabashed display of wealth-envy. It’s intimate but not sexualised — focused on Wu’s female gaze. ‘Hustlers’ has a rare vantage point, as perhaps the only high-calibre feature about strippers made by a female filmmaker.
Rarer still, it doesn’t exoticize the profession. And when it comes to the crimes the women eventually commit, there’s no sugarcoating. The opening montage, which tracks Wu through the club, echoes the Copacabana scene in ‘Goodfellas’. That movie was a touchstone for Scafaria, as she was making her pitch. Because, she said, when it comes to depictions of men in an underworld behaving badly, “we can name 1,000 of those characters by their first and last names; we’ve enjoyed them.”
Real-life female baddies are still so uncommon on screen, though, that they almost seem heroic, not dangerous, by default. “There’s no doubt that people are going to think it’s a female empowerment movie,” Wu said, “because if you look at the highlight reel of the movie, it’s badassery.”
But she added: “We’re not trying to romanticise that life. Whereas in ‘Goodfellas,’ the first line is, ‘I always wanted to be a gangster.’”
The story is told through Wu’s character, who begins working at a club out of economic necessity, only to realise that stripping has its own financial hierarchy. Dancers are often at the bottom; club managers, security and DJs can all take a cut. The drug-and-fraud scheme that Lopez’s Ramona concocts — and the leg-up she offers as a friend — is a lifeline, especially in the wake of the recession, when the women tumbled down from the status they had precariously reached. The movie, said Wu, focuses on “the societal structures they have grown up in and the backgrounds that have given them very few choices of how to survive and flourish in this world.”
Authenticity mattered. Scafaria and her cast made many visits to strip clubs and had a stripper as an expert and comfort consultant on set. “She would say little things like, ‘The guys say “please” a lot more,’” Scafaria reported. They shot in an actual club, Show Palace in Long Island City, Queens, where, after an open call, they cast several real-life dancers and a manager.
Lopez and Wu committed themselves to the moves, installing stripper poles in their homes to train. Even for Lopez, a lifelong dancer, it was jolting. “I was incredibly nervous,” she said. “I had to be up there, and I had to kind of bare myself — my soul and my physical body — in a way that I hadn’t in any other movie.”
And she was surprised at the skill and stamina required. Filming her showstopping routine over several days at the club in May, she hurt her arm, “and it still hasn’t recovered,” she added.
For Cardi B, who appears in a few memorable club moments, the film hit home. In an Instagram live message she posted immediately after a screening, she was on the verge of crying as she recalled her dancing years. “Sometimes — a lot of times — I always remember when I first started, how hard it was,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “But it took time for me to get there, and it took training, and it took long hard nights of dealing with less than savoury people. Like, it took a lot of my self-esteem away, but then it also built some self-esteem, because I felt so powerful at times.”
But the friendships she made with other women at the club, and the lessons they taught, changed her life, she told her followers: “I be feeling like nobody can hustle me anymore.”
To get the movie done in the 29 days allotted for filming, Scafaria and her cinematographer, Todd Banhazl, detailed every scene and music cue, with the first half heavy on montages — by design to convey the characters’ heady rise at the club. Scafaria felt a little bad, she admitted, “about all the fur coats and smoking in this movie.” But the pace, she added, “was always a freight train, even on paper.”
The film still manages some twists: As the women’s criminal plot intensifies and then unravels, the storytelling becomes more layered (Julia Stiles plays a journalist who connects the dots).
“It gets ugly,” Lopez said of what the foursome pull off. Watching the first screening as a producer, she was suddenly put off by her own character (an amalgam, not a direct representation). “She is a beast; she’s brutal,” Lopez said. “I don’t think she ever felt bad.”
That’s a reason the movie intrigued her: “Like, be careful, these things could be glamorous and sexy — but they could also be dangerous, and they can finish you,” she said.
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‘Hustlers’ releases in the UAE on September 12.