Every so often a film comes along that genuinely takes you by surprise and exceeds your expectations. Hustlers is one of those movies.
Based on a 2015 New York Magazine article (“The Hustlers at Scores“ by Jessica Pressler), Hustlers transcends its initial Showgirls-meets-Magic Mike aesthetic (though let’s be honest, that would be one helluva entertaining film) by adopting a more Scorcesian temperament; Goodfellas set within the world of exotic dancers? Don’t mind if I do.
It all starts off as grimy and as seedy as one would expect – writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s immersive approach to following Constance Wu’s down-on-her-luck Dorothy from the dressing room to the stage of the strip club she entertains at evokes a palpable reaction – before the unforgettable imagery of an award-worthy Jennifer Lopez (yes, she’s that good), half-naked and showered in hundred dollar bills, defies the laws of ageing by turning out a sexually-charged, though never visually degrading, dance routine to the foreboding tune of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”.
Understandably in awe of the attention and monetary advancements Lopez’s seasoned stripper Ramona attains night after night, Dorothy – renaming herself Destiny – approaches the veteran hoping to acquire some pearls of wisdom; in a conversational scene worthy of iconic status, Ramona, in nothing but a fur coat, heels and underwear, snuggles the naive Dorothy and forges a partnership that takes them beyond their desires.
At once teaching Dorothy how to work the pole and identify which clientele are the best to lend focus to – mostly macho Wall Street-types with too much money – Ramona adopts a motherly role of sorts to the club’s dancers (which also includes brief but entertaining turns from rapper Cardi B and current pop hot property Lizzo), with the film again defying expectation by creating an environment heavy on family rather than feuding.
Business booms momentarily for Ramona and Dorothy, but the 2008 financial crisis (the film initially begins in 2007) brings proceedings to a grinding halt, eliciting a desperation from the girls that they had grown accustomed to no longer adhering to. Failing to generate serious revenue on their own accord, Ramona and Dorothy, along with a duo of fellow-minded strippers (Keke Palmer’s sassy Mercedes and Lili Reinhart’s sweet-but-nervous Annabelle), take matters into their own hands and concoct a seemingly fool-proof plan to steal from a variety of overtly-wealthy men by seducing them, spiking their drinks, racking up their credit cards in their barely-conscious stupor, and sending them on their way so that the next morning it comes off as nothing more than a drunken bender.
Scafaria enjoys staging these sequences of excess with a shameless glee – Ramona and Dorothy describing how turned on they are by Dorothy’s new car before front-seat dancing to Britney Spears’ ode-to-gluttony “Gimme More” is so perfectly on-the-nose – but keeping in check with Dorothy’s own maturing and reflection on her wild past, Hustlers often punctures its rhythm by returning to the film’s framing device in which a more reserved Dorothy sits in a suitably mature townhouse describing her criminal actions to an investigative journalist, Elizabeth (a fine Julia Stiles).
As playful as the film occasionally is, it’s the respectful navigation of this sexualised world that Scafaria nails with absolute perfection. This is a sexy film, though the characters never feel sexualised, and we never once forget that, above everything else, this is a job where the women employed just happen to be very good at what they have been advised to do. There’s a beautiful void of stigmatising this profession, and through this honest de-glamourising she has made it a form of employment that almost anyone who has been in a customer service role can relate to; some days are good, some days are bad, and customers are the absolute worst!
What very easily could have been a play on the Robin Hood mentality, Hustlers, whilst admittedly toying with the notion of stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor, undercuts any of that narrative simplicity by showcasing Dorothy’s remorse and interpolating the non-judgemental views of Elizabeth throughout. This is a movie that neither judges nor condones the actions of its characters, merely acting as an explanation as to how desperation can translate to corruption.