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hustlers is already the most iconic movie of 2019

With its A-List cameos and heady mix of female empowerment and true crime drama, here's how the movie surprised literally everyone.

by Nick Levine
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Sep 18 2019, 2:03pm

“Drain the clock, not the cock,” says Cardi B’s Hustlers character, Diamond. She's offering some professional advice to Constance Wu’s Destiny, a newbie stripper who wants to supersize her paycheck. It’s an instantly iconic moment in a film that’s filled with instantly iconic moments. It sounds like something that meme queens the Cock Destroyers might say

Elsewhere Jennifer Lopez performs a stunning striptease to Fiona Apple's 90s banger "Criminal". J-Lo and Wu dance in their car to Britney Spears's "Gimme More", and at home to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much”. Lizzo’s character plays her flute in a strip club dressing room because we deserve to see Lizzo playing her flute in a strip club dressing room.

Hustlers has already punched above its weight at the box office and spawned talk of a J-Lo Oscar campaign that, let’s be honest, none of us saw coming. But above all, it’s a film that the internet is going to be obsessing over for months to come. To an extent, the film, and the reaction its spawned, is probably benefiting from the element of surprise. Pre-release trailers suggested that Hustlers, adapted by writer-director Lorene Scafaria from Jessica Pressler’s excellent New York magazine article The Hustlers at Score, would offer flashy fun performed by an awesomely diverse female cast. Julia Stiles, Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart and Scream Queens’ Keke Palmer appear in supporting roles, and Lizzo and Cardi B make cameos that feel authentic rather than gimmicky, especially given Cardi’s own stripping past. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie like that – ideally with your best mate at your side and a couple of M&S mojitos?

But then Hustlers premiered at Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September and movie critics ate it up. Currently it holds an 87 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was hailed by Time Out’s Helen O’Hara as a “deeply feminist film, one where men are given less screen time than the cameoing Cardi B and Lizzo”. Suddenly we saw that Hustlers might be more than just a fun movie; now, it looked like just a very good film really. A very good film driven by a super-contemporary message of female empowerment.

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For some viewers, the way in which this female empowerment eventually manifests might feel problematic. Hustlers follows Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny – who’s initially Ramona’s stripping protégé, but soon becomes her best friend and literal partner-in-crime – as the pair hatch a scam to fleece offensively wealthy Wall Street types.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Manhattan strip club where they work is struggling to attract customers. Destiny has a baby daughter to feed and Ramona has taken a retail job to make ends meet, so they pivot to what Ramona calls “marketing”: picking up rich men at upscale bars and taking them to the strip club in exchange for a cut of whatever they spend on drinks. It’s a cunning side hustle, but an unreliable one, because sometimes the rich dudes realise the ruse or just don’t want to get drunk. Ramona and Destiny’s response? Turn each marketing trip into a sure thing by spiking the guys’ drinks with MDMA to make them happy and ketamine to mess up their memory. Soon they’re raking it in as they charge tens of thousands of dollars to credit cards belonging to men who don’t know where they are or what’s going on. And if these men can even remember what happened the next morning, they’ll either be too embarrassed or lacking in credibility to get help from the police.

In the film, the journalist interviewing Ramona and Destiny for New York magazine, played by Julia Stiles, tells Destiny she doesn’t feel sorry for their victims. As you watch Hustlers, you might reach the same conclusion. Hustlers may take place between 2007 and 2014, but these women clearly belong in 2019, the era of the scammer. They’re a Caroline Calloway or an Anna Delvey that you can actually kind of get behind, at least until they take things too far.

The fact Hustlers unfolds in the very recent past adds to its semi-nostalgic, potentially timeless appeal. There’s a cleverly meta cameo from Usher and Julia Stiles’ presence feels comfortingly nostalgic. Low-rise jeans, Louboutins and coach baguette bags are these women’s battle armour. J-Lo’s character wears the same kind of Juicy Couture velour hoodie that actual J-Lo would have worn back in the day.

J-Lo’s performance in particular in Hustlers has already been singled out and talked up. But deservedly so. It's reminiscent of Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning work in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich; like Roberts, Lopez is playing a character who isn’t exactly like her, but who definitely feels enriched by her massive movie star charisma. All the performances in Hustlers are strong, but J-Lo’s Ramona is the film’s slightly twisted heart: glamorous, maternal, unscrupulous and a little too trusting. It's the kind of film that, far from being instantly forgettable, will be something audiences return to watch again and again. And, we anticipate, will inspire countless Grindr bios celebrating the already iconic mantra: “drain the clock, not the cock”.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.