In Hustlers, when a stripper-turned-grifter poses this question to a journalist whose dress and diction signal white privilege, it stops the interviewer in her tracks. As one of the smartest lines in a smart script, it gave me pause, too. The answer depends on so many factors: were you born into a well-off family, or like so many Americans, are you one paycheck away from destitution?
Ultimately, Hustler’s social commentary proves unsubtle, but it has valid points to make. We see the selectiveness of our pseudo-justice system, where strippers are more likely to face the music for criminal activity than their coke-snorting, economy-wrecking Wall Street clientele. We get a close-up on a society without a safety net, for a demographic whose above minimum wage livelihood only endures as long as their bodies look pretty.
I’ll admit, I didn’t have high hopes for Hustlers. Part of this was preview fatigue, having seen its vapid trailer too many times. And part of me worried that its strip club setting would be used exploitatively.
I needn’t have worried about the latter. Writer/director Lorene Scarafia’s camera doesn’t dally on the bare flesh on display, only long enough to plausibly establish her film’s setting. Hustlers is far more interested in showing the workaday lives of its characters, putting their bodies out there six nights out of seven, paying sizeable cuts to the middle men and women, then going home to their families in the early morning.
Besides, I should’ve had more faith in Scarafia. I loved her debut feature, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the charming apocalyptic romcom starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. The storytelling here, in her third film, is just as strong.
Hustlers opens in 2007, with Destiny (Constance Wu) on her first night at a major NYC strip club. Aware of her inadequate skill set, she’s wowed by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran whose dancing and nonstop seductive smile ensure a generous take each night. On a smoke break together, the two women bond, and the maternal Ramona makes Destiny her protégée.
Hustlers’ timeline is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Destiny interviewed in 2014 by the aforementioned journalist, played by Julia Stiles. (This is a nod to the film’s origins as an award-winning 2015 New York magazine article.) The reason for the interview emerges in piecemeal fashion as the story advances.Meanwhile, Destiny and Ramona become best friends away from the club, as Destiny meets Ramona’s daughter, and Ramona befriends Destiny’s grandmother. With their increased earnings, they enjoy wild shopping sprees; like many of the film’s montages, these are counterintuitively yet effectively set to spry Frédéric Chopin études.
Then comes 2008, and the economic bubble bursts. As their clientele’s disposable income evaporates, Destiny and Ramona feel the hurt downstream. In desperation, the pair concoct a scheme with fellow strippers Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and Annabelle (Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart), to bilk select still-wealthy patrons, to maintain their cozy lifestyles.
Improving on her earlier feature, Scarafia keeps a brisk momentum going across Hustlers, with an expert sense of comic timing. Annabelle is hilariously prone to stress vomiting, inevitably followed by a contrite “sorry.” Destiny tells the journalist in deadpan tones, “I know it sounds wrong, drugging people.” And as their profits grow, the quartet of women unironically adopt Wall Street language for their operation: they “outsource” scamming to other strippers, and Ramona dubs herself their Chief Financial Officer.
Constance Wu (busy from leading turns in Crazy Rich Asians and TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) solidly adds to her résumé here, but Jennifer Lopez totally steals this movie, right from her initial scene. With the only full-length pole dance sequence and a later lesson given to Wu’s character, Lopez impresses first with her physicality. But then for the film’s duration, she amazes by bringing fully to life a complex persona. I unquestioningly believed her clashing motivations: sacrificial friendship, motherhood, greed, and steely ruthlessness. How I wish Lopez would dedicate more time to acting, since Hustlers reveals a charismatic superstar still in possession of every ounce of talent she displayed in Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful 1998 film Out of Sight.
Also to the film’s credit, when Destiny tries to explain away her felonious behavior with pop psychology, this is dismissed with a wink. Hustlers succeeds in balancing sympathy for its leads without excusing their criminality. Yet Destiny and Ramona are rightly shown to be minnows swimming in the ocean of corruption that is the good ol’ US of A.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )