This can degrade, it’s suggested, but also liberate after a fashion. What would count in other contexts as harassment is so taken for granted at Moves it hardly has to be dwelt on, yet the hard-boiled exchanges between the women have a genuine exuberance, recalling Hollywood movies of the 1930s where showgirls trade wisecracks backstage.
The key early scene comes when the heroine Destiny (Constance Wu), the new girl at Moves, watches veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) perform a showstopping pole dance routine. Destiny has been in the industry for years, but by comparison feels like an amateur: her expression is awed, envious, perhaps a little disconcerted.
On the club’s rooftop, Ramona takes her admirer under her wing, literally enveloping her in the folds of her fur coat. This leads to another unforgettable scene, a private dance lesson where Ramona demonstrates moves such as “the Fireman” and “the Peter Pan”, which Destiny struggles to mimic, letting us see the sheer labour that goes into the appearance of casting off restraint.
The bond between these two women is the heart of the film, but not the whole story. Scafaria aims to open up a whole subcultural milieu for us, borrowing some tricks from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas: the camera darts into the nooks and crannies of Moves, while Destiny explains the rules of the game in voiceover.
This opening section of the film takes place in 2007, and a year or two later everything has changed: the global financial crisis has hit, the Wall Street high-flyers have mostly come down to earth and some of Moves’ more colourful employees, such as the brazen Diamond, played all too briefly by rapper Cardi B, have likewise dropped out of the picture.
Here’s where Ramona introduces Destiny and others to her master plan: if stripping simplifies relations between men and women, why not simplify further and do whatever it takes to get the money at the end of the night? It doesn’t take long for her friends to be convinced, and based on what the film has shown us already, most viewers will be equally willing to go along for the ride.
This overturning of conventional values leads to some witty touches, especially the casting of the actors who play the scam’s victims: some are young and slick, others look like somebody’s uncle (though all, I think, are white). The point is that their looks and personalities don’t matter, provided they’re rich enough to be worth the trouble and vain enough to fool themselves about the nature of the transaction taking place.
As a stylist Scafaria doesn’t always have the moves to back up her bravado and she can be outright lazy: one character is defined by a running gag about vomiting and a chihuahua is introduced halfway through, apparently to give the film something to cut to for an easy laugh.
Inevitably, too, there’s the moment when the chickens come home to roost and moralising kicks in. But as usual in films about glamorous criminals, this is an obligatory, token gesture: there’s no effort to pretend the adventure wasn’t fun while it lasted, or that most of the guys didn’t deserve everything they got.
Moreover, even if Destiny repents her misdeeds, the amoral Ramona never does — and Hustlers gives Lopez her best role in years, as a woman whose warmth and charisma are inseparable from her decision to put herself first at any price.