Hustlers (2019)

Inspired by a True Story

‘Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a stripper.’

Now, that’s not quite how Hustlers starts out, but it almost does. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, The Meddler (2015), and based on the article The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers isn’t the only Martin Scorsese-adjacent film currently at the multiplex, but it is the more interesting and entertaining. It also has a lot more to say about the grim realities of living in a ruthlessly capitalistic society. After all, you never see Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely, laughing Arthur Fleck get conned into performing a $60 blow job just to put food on the table — in Hustlers, that’s a major turning point. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and besides, it ain’t as grim as all that.

The only thing better than a glass of champagne … is a bottle.

Narrating her story to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) to give us that all-important voice-over narration, our heroine is suburban single mom Dorothy (Constance Wu), who was formerly ingenue stripper Destiny, struggling to make ends meet and support her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in the first decade of the 21st century. It’s a tough gig until she falls into the orbit and under the tutelage of queen bee stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), who proceeds to teach her all the tricks of the trade, including how to milk their Wall Street club patrons for as much money as humanly possible. It’s a golden age: third wave sex-positive feminism colliding with the seemingly endless parade of self-loathing Wall Street Masters of the Universe eager to salve their souls by throwing dollar bills at naked grad students.

It can’t last, of course. The crash of 2008 torpedoes the strip club economy good and proper and Dorothy finds herself faced with the prospect of turning tricks instead of turning around the pole (for a film that parades its feminist bona fides proudly, Hustlers draws a hard line between exotic dancing and prostitution, unequivocally looking down on the latter). Far better, it seems to throw in with Ramona and, with the aid of a little drink-spiking, bilk the last few big whales on the club circuit out of every cent that can be wrung out of their platinum cards and expense accounts. And so, Constance finds herself, as she puts it, CFO of her own corporation: a roster of strippers-turned-con-artists drugging and robbing well-heeled men.

Flash for cash

Put down in digital ink it reads as pretty horrible stuff, but the film takes pains in letting us know that these guys had it coming, even though recent real-world events have reminded us that drink spiking (and at least one club owner) is a thoroughly awful practice. In Hustlers’ filmic universe, however, all relationships are transactional to one degree or another, every interpersonal dynamic is uneven, and we are never allowed to forget it. The result is a relentlessly sexy film that goes out of its way to forefront the artificial, performative nature of that sexiness. Indeed, it’s not just the dancing that’s, at base, fake; by extension we’re required to question every exchange, every gift given, every sisterly, supportive hug: what’s genuine and what’s concealing an agenda?

That’s the essential tension in Hustlers: not whether the wheels will come off Ramona and Dorothy’s increasingly unwieldy rolling scam (of course it will — there’s already a feature article about it, for crying out loud), but whether any of the relationships we’re seeing are genuine. We already have an unreliable narrator (Stiles’ journo points out that Ramona, who she has interviewed separately, has a different take on events), and our characters are people who fake feelings for money — the ground is treacherous. This makes for a different and rather feminine set of stakes. In a Scorsese movie, the risk is generally that someone like Joe Pesci will jam an icepick between your upper vertebrae; here, it’s whether the person you consider a sister and mentor has been manipulating your need for acceptance and support to their own ends. When the forces of law and order begin to close in, and Ramona’s girls start to eye the exits and each other’s vulnerabilities, things really get cooking, in an emotional sense.

Watch and Learn

It works a treat, thanks to deft, layered work by the cast, who wring nuance and complexity out of a script that might have played flat in lesser hands. Constance Wu is certainly on the upswing at the moment, and the film smartly plays off of her wholesome looks and the girl-next-door persona she deployed in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), counterpointing our tacit assumptions about her against the actions and words of her character.

Of course, the big noise has been about Jennifer Lopez, here making her return to high profile big-screen fare. Contrary to popular belief, Lopez hasn’t been neglecting her acting career of late, but it’s certainly not your fault if the likes of The Back-Up Plan (2010), Parker (2013), The Boy Next Door (2015), Lila & Eve (2015), and Second Act (2018) escaped your notice; in an ideal world they would have escaped Lopez’s too. Here she reminds us why she was such an exciting performer back in her late ’90s Selena (1997)/ Out of Sight (1998)/ U-Turn (1997) heyday, effortlessly dominating the screen with both her physicality and her assured sense of character and voice.

Dancing Cheek to Cheek

The rest of the cast, which includes Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl, Cam’s Madeline Brewer, and near-cameos from Cardi B and Lizzo, acquit themselves well, but they’re very much spear-carriers for the main drama that plays out between Wu and Lopez, which is fine; the characters that need definition are efficiently sketched (a purse puppy here, a nervous vomit reaction there) and going further would only muddy the clear narrative stream of the film.

At least, it’s clear to me; in the discourse around the film, there seems to be a tendency to get hung up on the surface details and frame Hustlers as a sexy Girl Power romp — and if that’s your takeaway, that’s your prerogative. But, appropriately for a film about stripping, that’s just the surface sizzle, the sexy façade; underneath is a surprisingly hard-nosed account of how raw capitalism makes predators of us all, how competition makes us mistrust those we should be closest to, and how respecting the hustle makes us lose track of what’s really important.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Hustlers is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia