In more films than I care to count, the role of stripper or exotic dancer is often relegated to the background of a scene that otherwise centers on men being men. These women are treated like wallpaper to be admired but rarely considered. And in the few cases where a stripper’s story is told, we get works like Striptease or worse, Showgirls, which still feels like a surface-level character study that is quite often laughable about what they get wrong. But with writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, the attention into the lives of these such women is borderline unprecedented. For once, it’s the male characters who are interchangeable and less defined, and a true-life story of desperate people resorting to desperate measures emerges in one the most entertaining and insightful films in recent memory.
Based on writer Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” (published in December 2015), Hustlers focuses on Destiny (Constance Wu, from Crazy Rich Asians and “Fresh Off the Boat”), a Chinese-American woman taking care of her elderly grandmother but barely making ends meet as a stripper after giving a huge cut of the money she makes to management, the bouncers and even the DJ (to talk her up during her solo numbers). We realize early on that much of what we’re seeing is being told in flashback, as the more modern-day Destiny is talking to a reporter (Julia Stiles, playing a version of Pressler). There’s even a bit of tension knowing that something big blew up in order for a reporter to be interested in the story we’re about to witness.
Still considered the new girl, Destiny is introduced to Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, in one of the best performances of her career), a dancer who is as confident off stage as she is on—and she’s about the most confident person you’ll ever seen on stage. Lopez combines her long history as a dancer, actor and stage performer to create a character that seems ready to pop off the screen; I don’t think there are many men (or women) in the world who could resist her. I’d even help her move furniture if she asked. She commands every scene she’s in, and that utterly sells Romana’s role in what’s about to happen. Romona not only teaches Destiny how to work the pole on stage but also how to control the men who come into the club without resorting to anything sordid. The film is as educational as it is illuminating, and that’s a big reason it plays so beautifully.
Destiny starts to turn a profit and live a little more comfortably, which makes her more curious about how far she and Ramona can take their powers of persuasion, and before long, the two assemble a small army of dancers into a scheme that pays well but includes a soaring risk factor. Identifying most of their high-spending clients as Wall Street douches with disposable personal cash and corporate credit cards, the ladies launch a plan to set up private shows for regular clients, drug them and sweet talk them out of their PIN numbers, mother’s maiden names, and social security numbers in an effort to empty their accounts over time. The men won’t complain because it’s embarrassing to think you got so drunk that you forgot what a good time you had, and for a while the plan works…until it doesn’t.
While the film focuses on Ramona and Destiny, there are other regulars including Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), with fun cameos from performers like Lizzo and Cardi B (a former stripper in her own right, who offers a wealth of knowledge and instruction to Destiny about how to give a lap dance). Also quite good here is Madeline Brewer as Dawn, a junkie who comes into the scheme later in the film as the “business” grows, and quickly becomes a liability. And before long, the scheme collapses along with a whole lot of dreams.
Director Scafaria has a history of making quirky comedies (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddler) that care as much about character development as they do about laughs. With Hustlers, she has perfected the formula for a cocktail that is equal parts pure, high-energy entertainment (a raging soundtrack, splashy images, and an array of beautiful women in all shapes, sizes and colors is an infectious combination), humor and crime drama. The film deals seriously with the economic strife that hits their Wall Street clients hard when the banking infrastructure tanked, and shows how the women weathered the storm. If nothing else, the movie illustrates how smart, resilient people will always find a way to survive, even if it’s highly illegal.
Hustlers is so much more than Lopez in a g-string (although that’s nothing to sneeze at). It’s a story about empowerment, how dumb and manipulatable men can be (we probably don’t need reminding of that; we know), and how crime sometimes does pay until the weak link in a plan is easily broken. Sometimes the film hits things a little too one the nose—Lopez’s closing speech about how the world is like a strip club because some people are throwing money around and other have to dance for it seems unnecessary—but that doesn’t undercut what the film gets so right.
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