Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
While I understand the appeal of strip clubs to (some) human males, I have never understood their cultural mainstreaming. While I would never want them to become illegal – in my opinion, all so-called “vice crimes” should be legalized and regulated, as they exist, anyway – the fact that they openly exist and are openly patronized confuses me, since they sell sex as much as any prostitute or escort, whatever actually happens in the “VIP Room.” Furthermore, they encourage an objectification of women and the female form that we should be trying to move beyond, as a society. One could argue, I suppose, that these establishments are at least honest in what they offer, unlike the world’s advertising agencies which continue to objectify women in more underhanded and damaging ways. In any case, here we are: they are a thing, and people go to them, sometimes paying big money for one-on-one shows, fake intimacy and more.
Based on a true story recounted in a 2015 article for New York Magazine by journalist Jessica Pressler, the new film Hustlers follows a group of New York City strippers who struggle to make ends meet following the 2008 global recession, after which they lose half their clientele. We spend a fair amount of time with them in the glorious before, as they grind their crotches and behinds into eager prospects who are more than willing to throw away huge sums of widely available money (i.e., your housing investments) on a fleeting good time. But then all that changes and, a few years later with no sign of real economic improvement, the gals have to improvise. Now they bring the game to the guys, hunting them down – or “fishing,” as they call it – on their own turf to drug them and max out their credit cards. It’s revenge of the downtrodden and manhandled! Good for them … sort of.
The problem with the film, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler), is that we never learn enough about our protagonists to understand why this is the only way they can earn a living, other than a brief scene with one of them looking for, and failing to get, a retail job. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this is so, and a better movie would provide a stronger background to elicit more compassion for the Robin Hood-like tale about to take place. True, the targeted men are mostly jerks, and I do not regret their fleecing, but neither do I feel any greater sympathy for the women here than I did for Leonardo DiCaprio’s corrupt shark in The Wolf of Wall Street. Despite Michael Douglas’s catchphrase from an even earlier Wall Street film, greed is never good.
That said, Hustlers is, at times, terrific fun, thanks to the solid cast headlined by Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (aka J-Lo), who both strut their stuff and flaunt their attitude without needing to bare it all à la real-life strippers (strategically placed naked extras in the background are there for verisimilitude and, dare I presume, titillation). Aided and abetted by strong support from Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart (Miss Stevens) and Cardi B (who actually once lived the life, apparently), among others, Wu and Lopez, as Destiny and Ramona, plow ahead into an ill-conceived scheme to take back, through illicit methods, what they believe is rightfully theirs. If only the film were as feminist as it thinks it is, this could be either a wonderful morality tale or one of those movies that takes delight in allowing bad deeds to go unpunished.
And why not? We’ve certainly had our share of such cinematic treats featuring transgressing men. Unfortunately, Scafaria adds the additional plot thread of Wu’s on-the-tape confession to Julia Stiles (The Drowning), as Jessica Pressler, with her Destiny feeling remorse and watering down what strength she had as a woman warrior. Again, I don’t think that what they did was right, but the movie would be infinitely more rewarding – and, in my opinion, a much more inspiring tale of female empowerment – if Wu’s character took real ownership of her choices. At the end, Scafaria plays both sides, resulting in a wishy-washy take on the episode. I’m slightly more positive than negative on the whole thing, but wish it were better and stood up for something, rather than merely sitting down for a lap dance.