Review: HUSTLERS, A Breezy, Stylish Tale of Robin Hoods of the Strip Club
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, and starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Julia Stiles (with cameos by Cardi B and Lizzo), this stylish true-crime caper boasts great performances and a potent feminist slant.
“This whole city, this whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” So says exotic dancer/criminal entrepreneur Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) near the conclusion of Lorene Scafaria's stylish, breezy crime romp Hustlers, articulating the thesis statement of a film which ultimately may not have very much depth, but is nevertheless an immensely enjoyable watch with a number of impressive performances.
One of those, of course, is the charismatic and showy one by Lopez, a shiny, glittery bauble of a performance that has been attracting much attention and even early Oscar buzz ever since Hustlers' recent Toronto film fest premiere.
I fear, however, that all the press attention is overshadowing, and even doing a disservice to, the equally impressive turn by Constance Wu (a relatively lesser known quantity, despite starring in the hit TV show Fresh Off the Boat), who actually plays the film's main character and emotional center. Hopefully, after this film’s release, the general public will be appreciative of Wu's wonderful, sensitive work than critics and entertainment reporters have been so far.
What’s immediately apparent about Hustlers, even from its opening frames, is that this is a film which has Scorsese’s Goodfellas deeply embedded in its DNA. Its rise-and-fall crime trajectory and intermittent voiceover is very clearly patterned on that gangster movie classic. We’re even introduced to the central character Destiny (Wu), a newbie exotic dancer on her first night working at a Manhattan strip joint, through a Steadicam shot following Destiny from backstage to the club stage and floor, a scene directly quoting Ray Liotta’s famous trip through the Copacabana.
This story, based on a true account detailed in Jessica Pressler's 2015 New York Magazine article "The Hustlers at Scores," begins in the early 2000s, as the profession of exotic dancing was having a cultural moment, shedding much of its former sleazy stigma, giving way to sleek, upscale clubs like Hustler Club and Scores in Manhattan, TV shows glamorizing the profession like HBO's G String Divas, and gyms offering pole dancing classes.
This is the milieu in which we first encounter Destiny, who's caring for her grandmother back home in Queens and working at an upscale Manhattan strip club as a way to get quick money to support herself and pay off her grandmother's debts. She's initially having a rough time of it, struggling with her dance moves and finding it difficult to attract guys for lap dances.
But then she – and we – witness the grand entrance of star dancer Ramona as she strides onto the club stage like a champion prizefighter, and proceeds to stun the crowd (both onscreen and in the movie theater) with a truly astonishing pole dance routine, leaping, floating, and pirouetting like some sexy circus acrobat. (This is all set to the tune of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” a rather left field choice for a strip club banger, but the title is very apropos of the character behavior we witness later.)
Immediately in awe of this creature, Destiny quickly befriends Ramona, who takes her under her fur-covered wing. She teaches Destiny some killer dance moves and shows her the tricks of the trade, and how to elicit the maximum amount of money from the club’s clientele, which largely consists of high-powered Wall Street traders. The film envelops us in the feel of these heady, intoxicating times, where the money flowed as freely as the copious champagne and liquor, as Destiny, Ramona, and the other dancers take advantage of their clients’ largesse to indulge in luxuries and upgrade their living situations.
But then the 2008 financial crisis hits, with devastating effects. The spigot of Wall Street money dries up, and the dancers hit hard times, facing new competition from immigrant girls offering blow jobs for $300 a pop. Destiny leaves the club for a time, has a child, and tries to find other ways to make a living. But her struggles eventually lead her back to the club, where she reconnects with Ramona.
By now, Ramona has come up with a solution for boosting the club’s dwindling clientele by doing what she calls “fishing,” going to bars to lure men to the club, where they collude with the club itself to max out these guys’ credit cards. Ramona includes Destiny in this scheme, and also recruits two other dancers, Mercedes and Annabelle (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, both delightful).
Their plan works for a while, but then Ramona comes up with the idea of breaking down their targets’ resistance by spiking their drinks with a mixture of ecstasy and ketamine that will eventually knock them out, but not before eroding their decision-making abilities enough to give up their financial information. Predictably, as the stakes are raised for this criminal scheme, things go awry, people get greedy and sloppy, and eventually everything unravels for everyone.
Hustlers’ narrative structure uses the device of Destiny telling her story to a journalist (Julia Stiles) writing a piece about the women and their scam. This effectively personalizes the story and helps us to empathize with Destiny and her friends, who flipped the script of circumstances designed to exploit them by using their wiles and physical attractiveness to gain the upper hand of mostly scumbag-type men who regarded them as little more than disposable objects to fulfill their selfish fantasies.
This streak of feminism and empowering sisterhood makes Hustlers the rare film about the strip club milieu that isn’t exploitative of the actors who appear in them and doesn’t cheaply trade on their sex appeal for the voyeuristic pleasure of viewers. In fact, there’s considerably less nudity than you’d expect in a film about this subject.
So if you’re looking for some type of overtly sexual film about strippers showing off their flesh, you’d best look elsewhere, because this is not that type of movie. Instead, it’s a mostly upbeat, rousing film about a bunch of female Robin Hoods who stick it to those men whose mission it is to fleece the public. And if Hustlers in the end lacks the substance to stick the landing of making the events it depicts have larger sociopolitical significance or meaning, this makes it no less an intoxicating and fun cinematic ride.
Hustlers opens in theaters on September 13.