HUSTLERS is about as subtle as a pole dance when it comes to making a case for the poetic justice of what a gang of strippers did to the very Wall Street bankers who plunged the country into financial chaos back in 2008. And that is how it should be. The script written by director Lorene Scafaria is rife with references to just who got hurt when the bottom fell out of the market thanks to some shady, but not technically illegal, moves by the top tier of Wall Street elites. It makes what follows, as those strippers fleece them, a spectacle that is deeply satisfying. It also makes the fallout from the completely illegal methods the strippers employed yet another infuriating example of how the system is set up to protect the rich and punish any upstart prole who dares to take a bit of that wealth for themselves.
Based on the article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler tells the story from the ladies’ point of view, centering on Destiny (Constance Wu), an abandoned child who dotes on her grandmother and whose only asset is the hormonal response she engenders in men. Taken advantage of by strip club employers, barely eking out a living to support herself and her grandmother, she is befriended by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), whose opening line inviting Destiny to climb into her fur is destined for cinematic immortality. Destiny and Ramona, like all the girls at the club, are kind-hearted, a refreshing change from the usual male-centric trope of women tearing each other down in pursuit of the male gaze. These women have correctly sized up the societal lay of the land, and decided that sisterhood makes more sense. And a higher return as big spenders toss money like confetti, and Ramona teaches Destiny every trick of the trade from the Peter Pan pole move to how to clean up with tips during a lap dance.
As Destiny says at the beginning while recounting her story to an increasingly discomfited and incredulous reporter (Julia Stiles), it’s all about control. Again, a refreshing take from Scafaria as Destiny and Ramona feign a Sapphic interlude for the benefit of an extra big spender while barely able to suppress their amusement at what an easy mark he is, all while he thinks he’s the one exploiting them. The gloss on the culture of conspicuous consumption doesn’t need the clip of a certain family famous for being famous playing in the background during one scene. As a puckish grace note, though, it is a fine counterpoint to the way the ladies buy outrageously priced luxury items (paying with singles, of course) in order to snare their marks, and then succumb to the lure of chinchilla and red-soled stilettos. The real tragedy of the film isn’t that they were caught, a fact established from the beginning, but rather that they so wholeheartedly, ahem, bought into designer labels as the mark of not just success, but also of happiness itself
Scafaria tells their story as flashbacks, embracing the poignancy and the absurdity of a world where a man’s genitals can cost him $10K in one night, and women who decide to exploit the exploiters are that man, and his genitals’ worst nightmare. By the time we come to the part where Destiny and her oft-barfing partner Annabelle (Lili Reihnhart as the experience-hardened waif), drop a naked man off at an emergency room when his ego leads to a more than metaphorical fall, our sympathies are decidedly more with the mess Annabelle has left in Ramona’s car than what the mark brought on himself.
He bought into an illusion that a bevy a beautiful women want to party with him after picking him up in a bar for no reason other than his masculine charm, the way the country bought into easy mortgages and junk bonds. It’s that ci-mentioned poetic justice. As a neat summation of societal ills, it’s genius.
Lopez is more than soigné manicure and perfect eyebrows. She exudes toughness as well as maternal warmth in a performance that is finely nuanced as well as brassy. Ramona may walk away from the main stage with an armful of singles, bestowing a dazzling smile on her adoring fans, but she never for a moment lets those of us in the audience forget that the cash firmly clutched to her chest with a studied insouciance is the reason she’s there. It’s as calculated as the business plan she concocts to save herself, her peeps, and the strip club when the economy tanks. And just as believable in context. In a different world, she’d be running that world. In this one, she shakes her bodacious booty, and almost gets there anyway.
She has mastered the actor’s trick of being contradictory yet consistent. The rest of the cast, even Wu, are in her shadow, though Mercedes Ruehl as the club’s “mother” has a beaten-down tenacity that is noteworthy, and Wai Ching Ho as Destiny’s grandmother has a fine warmth-tempered toughness. Wu, the central character of the film, has the trick, too, in the less showy, but no less sympathetic part, of a woman troubled by emotional issues but not losing (most) of her moral compass. She can be wounded, a bit, but can still feign perfect indifference at the gawking of fellow parents when she has to walk her daughter into school still wearing her working clothes from the night before.
HUSTLERS, as I’ve said, has all the subtlety of a pole dance, but it also displays the disciplined artistry of a well-executed one. Perfectly choreographed and told with a perfect balance of sentiment and grit, it is a cautionary tale not for women who make the best of a bad situation, but for the people throwing the money at them about what happens when the former decide that the latter aren’t sharing enough of the wealth.