‘Hustlers’ Finds Girl Power in the Most Unlikely of Places
Inside the world of the seedy world of strip clubs, the glitter and glamour are often only on the surface. What lies beneath is where the real story lies. “Hustlers” is the tale of a family of strippers who weaponize their exterior sex appeal combined with their underlying smarts to extract riches from the most despicably wealthy men. Like its heroines, this oft-racy dramedy subverts expectations beyond the gyrating and grinding you would anticipate in a stripper-centered film to deliver a crime thriller romp that crosses genres which will appeal to a broad audience.
Daisy (Constance Wu – Crazy Rich Asians), whose stripper-name is Destiny is about to start her first shift as an exotic dancer. The camera follows her as she exits the bright lights of the dressing room teeming with the personality and out onto the dimly-lit madness of the strip club main floor. Her insecurities are evident through her body language as she reluctantly attempts to entice customers to a few minutes of faux intimacy in exchange for tips. She tolerates endless catcalls, including some racially insensitive ones, all because she needs to financially support her grandmother with whom she lives. After a night of dealing with frat boys and bachelor parties, she’s is content with her tips… until she has to dish out the majority of it to the club’s management. Reality sinks in that this may not be an as glamorous or prosperous career as she had hoped.
Then, like a dream draped in neon, glitter, and rhinestones, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez – Out of Sight) takes the stage. Ramona, a former centerfold, is like a siren whose acrobatic moves and sultry eyes instantly put men under her spell. By the time she exits the stage, she is surrounded by piles of cash thrown by the entranced audience. As Destiny watches Ramona’s every move, her expression quickly changes from despair to admiration and hope. This is what she envisioned for herself.
After watching her act, Destiny heads to the strip club’s roof where she finds Ramona looking luxuriously out of place lounging back, smoking a cigarette wearing nothing but her sparkly dance outfit and a massive fur coat. They speak and noticing she’s cold, Ramona opens her arms, offering Destiny the chance to warm herself under in her arms as they share her exorbitant coat. By the time they leave the roof the beginnings of their sisterly bond is already established with Ramona literally taking Destiny under her wing. Ramona begins by showing her the ropes of the profession including an impressive repertoire of pole moves – the stag, the reverse stag, the martini – all set to the wonderful piano sounds of Chopin. Soon, Destiny’s clientele list gets a major upgrade from immature college students to high-rolling Wall Streeters – and with richer clientele comes exponentially bigger profits.
Flash forward to 2014. Daisy/Destiny is being interviewed by Jennifer (Julia Stiles – 10 Things I Hate About You) a character based on the real-life writer whose article inspired the film. She explains how much life changed over the following year. 2008’s financial crisis hit Wall Street hard and also impacted the strip clubs – no wealthy customers, no tips. Now a single mother, she left dancing and lost touch with Destiny. She also had a tough time finding work because her resume consists of a GED and a couple of stints as “mainly a bartender” at two gentleman’s clubs. Her woes forced to return to dancing, but this time for far less reward.
When Ramona sees Destiny working at the strip club, the real hustle begins. They devise a scheme that involves drugging rich businessmen, showing them a good time, then running up their credit cards for thousands of dollars. No more begging for time off at Old Navy or catering to low-lives at the club, the ladies are back in control. The scheme proves to be much more profitable than could be expected. We’re along for the ride as we are briskly shown each of their marks expertly fleeced each with a haul bigger than the last. No longer worried about paying mortgages, the crew is now wearing high-end clothing, carrying massive designer purses, and driving expensive automobiles. As you’d expect things don’t always go so smoothly as they’d like. Leading to a final third of the where the intensity is ramped up several notches.
Constance Wu delivers as the heart and soul of the film – the relatable, moral center who earns our trust as she guides us through her trials. And, although she is strong-willed, she’s also vulnerable. That vulnerability is handled flawlessly in Wu’s performance. You can visibly see her inner struggle when her ethical conflicts with the hustle battle it out with the need to solve her financial struggles.
On the other side of the coin is Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona, a power-driven, business-minded woman who is determined to never let her situation hold her back. Lopez delivers a career-best performance, on par with her work in “Out of Sight” or the underrated “U-Turn”. From her first attention-grabbing appearance, Lopez owns the stage, the screen and quite possibly an Oscar nomination. For a celebrity who is often on the brink of being overexposed, she accomplishes the impossible – she disappears into her character. What Lopez does on that stage mesmerizes, grabs the audiences’ attention and doesn’t let go – sheer physicality on display – no body doubles, no cutaways. If she fails on stage, the film fails. Furthermore, her acting has never felt more natural from her line delivery to the use of her eyes, which are often even more powerful than her dance moves.
The list of recognizable faces extends is extensive with names like Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B and Mercedes Rahul each bringing their own contribution to the “family” environment that serves the film so well. Many of the performances hit the mark while a few feel like stunt casting. Some of the standouts include Usher‘s amusing cameo entering the club in the most non-discreet way possible, making it rain makes hundreds with an entourage in tow. The often under-appreciated Frank Whaley is an embodiment of the film’s main villain, heartless corporate America. The open-mouth, gum-chewing smirk he wears while he completely degrades women for his own pleasure is infuriatingly spot on. Be sure to stick around during the end credits to hear Executive Producer Will Ferrell‘s working the mic over the credits as the club’s emcee is worth extending your theater stay.
The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of writer/director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist). On paper, “Hustlers” sounds like a bag of character cliches just waiting to happen. Instead of falling into the usual traps, Scafaria writes strong, fleshed-out characters we can invest in. They are interesting because they have real needs, problems, and more importantly ambitions. While loaded with mounds of sexuality it still strikes a balance, the depth of the writing help to humanizing the characters rather than exploiting them.
In the director role, she delivers a high-energy film that movies at a brisk pace and never apologizes for having its bad girls do bad things. She meshes genres with surprising ease, especially for a filmmaker with so few films under her belt. The intense moments are peppered with the right blend of humor and heart, while never muddling the messages. She directs with a confident finesse, tackling themes such as capitalism, the to need to belong, misogyny and female empowerment. At its core “Hustlers” is all about control – who is the hustler and who are the hustled. As Ramona says, “the whole country is a strip club; you’ve got people throwing the money and you’ve got people doing the dance.”