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Every once in a while, there comes a delightful surprise of film which manages to exceed expectations wildly. Hustlers is one of those movies.
Based on New York Magazine’s 2015 article ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ by Jessica Pressler, our way into the film is stripper Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) circa 2007. Struggling to support herself on the single bills she earns six days a week, she sees older stripper and single mom Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, utilising her pop star charisma and Jenny from the Block persona for all its worth) being showered with hundreds of dollars each night. Wanting some of that action, Dorothy approaches her more experienced colleague for advice. In one of the most iconic scenes of the year, the two bond over a roof-top cigarette break, as the pair snuggle in Ramona’s giant fur coat for warmth.
Ramona agrees to teach Dorothy how to work a pole, as well as identify the clients – mostly Wall Street jerks – likely to casually spend thousands of dollars a night. In one of the film’s pleasant surprises, the two never become rivals. Instead, a la Boogie Nights, they form part of a de-facto family. Ramona is the surrogate mom to Dorothy, as well as to all the other young women (pop-stars Cardi B and Lizzo adding great colour to a handful of early workplace scenes) who wind up making a living catering to sleazy guys.
While business booms briefly for Dorothy and Ramona, it all comes crashing down with the 2008 financial crisis. Failing to generate revenue, the two – alongside other strippers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, Riverdale) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer, Scream Queens) battling their own personal issues – decide to take matters into their own hands. They begin stealing from wealthy men, spiking their drinks in bars and dragging them back to their strip club. When the victims wake up the next morning, all it looks like is a drunken bender.
Hustlers could have been Showgirls meets Magic Mike XXL and I would have been satisfied. Instead, it’s nestled in the higher echelon of Scorsese-esque ‘I can’t believe this actually happened’ stories somewhere between I, Tonya, American Made and American Hustle. Hustlers isn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking per se. But it is a great crowd pleaser, decidingly mainstream in its depiction of its lead characters’ exploits all the while smuggling in subversive elements underneath.
Much of the credit should go to writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers is a wild change in pace for the filmmaker following her previous effort, comedy-drama The Meddler). Firstly, behind the camera she displays serious talent. The opening scene introducing the central strip club, the camera following Dorothy behind her shoulder as she navigates the venue, is very immersive – the seedy environment of the place practically palpable.
There’s also a handful of amazing music video like scenes – J-Lo stripping to Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ or a police raid being scored to Lorde’s ‘Royal’ – that are worth the price of admission. That said, these stylish mic-drop moments showcasing characters in rapidly fluctuating states of mind are often thrillingly punctured by the movie’s framing device – a present-day interview between Dorothy and a journalist (a well-cast Julia Stiles). These scenes – shot in a drab house – feel a world away from the former. This is perfect given how they depict Dorothy coming to terms with her wild past.
From a writing perspective too, Scafaria navigates some tricky feats. She somehow has made a sexy film without sexualising its lead characters. We never forget these are working women who happen to be good at their jobs. She has also managed to make a movie about stripping which depicts the difficulties strippers face without stigmatising the profession. Scafaria wisely chooses to depict the workplace scenes in a way whereby anyone who has been in a job they weren’t passionate about can relate – some days are good, some days are bad, customers can be the worst.
It would also be easy to make a film which painted Dorothy and Ramona as heroes or Robin Hood-esque figures, women who turned the tables on the rich creeps who kept them down. While there are elements of that in Hustlers, the interjections from Stiles’ character, the clear regret Dorothy feels in the present over her past actions and the moments we spend with the victims of the crimes undercut such simplicity. In fact, the movie doesn’t try to condone or judge. It seeks to comprehend how someone can become embroiled in such a situation.
Ramona at one point says America is a strip club; some people are the ones throwing the money around, and the rest are the dancers. It’s nuggets of wisdom like this that elevate Hustlers above many of its contemporaries.