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Hustlers

HUSTLERS is a true crime movie with some grit and some emotion and some style. It stars Constance Wu (ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING) and Jennifer Lopez (ANACONDA) as the center of a ring of dancers (they don’t call themselves strippers, according to the source material) who started hanging out with rich guys so they could drug them and run up their credit cards. Wu’s character Destiny tells the story from seven years later, when she seems to have settled down, and is cautiously, suspiciously answering questions for a magazine writer (Julie Stiles, SAVE THE LAST DANCE).

When Destiny starts working at Moves she’s green, rubbing up on guys all day and going home with less money than that’s worth. There’s a great introduction to the place where the camera follows her and the other new girls from the back, out onto the stage to be introduced and down a ramp onto the floor where some asshole gets her attention by calling her Lucy Liu. Reminded me of one of my favorite shots in CREED, when it follows him to the ring and makes you feel like you’re there in his entourage, practically giving you stage fright. This has a similar feeling. You feel like you’re her, as much as a movie can do something like that.

Then she sees Ramona Vega (Lopez) entering the room like a pharaoh, dropping every jaw in the room, leaving the stage looking like it snowed one dollar bills. The Michael Jordan of the pole. Later, Destiny takes a rooftop smoke break at the same time as Ramona, who’s up there laid out like she’s doing a calendar shoot, and introduces herself. Destiny is in lingerie and it’s cold, so Ramona has her come curl up inside her big fur coat. I felt this was maybe a love story, but if so it always stays at or below this level of unacknowledged sexual chemistry. So they might just be friends who cuddle.

Ramona agrees to take Destiny as her padawan learner, so we get sort of a Scorsese-ish narrated romp through the tricks of the trade. Also the club has that SHOWGIRLS type bawdy half-naked-ladies-looking-in-makeup-mirrors-together family vibe, with Mercedes Ruehl (WIDOWS [2002]) as their mother figure Mama – no Robert Davi required. Pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo play two of their co-workers.

So far they’re not committing crimes, but we get the traditional crime movie boom year sequences, the celebration of capitalistic excess. They keep getting bigger, more amazing apartments with huge windows overlooking the city. Ramona hosts Christmas at her place and everybody squeals over new cheetah-skin Louboutin boots and chinchilla coats and shit. I like that this is a movie by and about women and the things they spend their money on are different from what men in crime movies would. But kind of the same, come to think of it – clothes, cars, food, drugs, women.

Then we get our dramatic silent black screen with a date on it. The stock market crash. The ladies have been living off of tips from slick-hair Wall Street bros with money to burn. What happens when the Champagne Room is unoccupied and there aren’t enough laps to go around? Destiny doesn’t know that Ramona’s job “in fashion” means folding clothes at Old Navy. She’d already tried to move on, but her straight life isn’t panning out either. After giving birth and dumping her douchey boyfriend (G-Eazy, a People’s Choice Awards winning rapper, apparently?) she needs a way to support her daughter, and Ramona’s drugging-rich-dudes plan sounds a whole lot more appealing than the prostitution one the other Moves girls are trying.

It’s always about a daughter or a son, huh? I know what they say, I’ve heard it many times that becoming a parent rewires you, changes your whole perspective. I get the concept, but I guess I’ll never feel it, not being a parent. So sometimes I get sick of every other movie treating it as the deepest shit ever, especially when it’s like this, and we barely see the parent spending time with the kid who is supposedly her whole world. You see it so many times it starts feeling like THEY LIVE propaganda – mate spawn and die. But viewed in a vacuum it’s handled pretty well here. It leads to some good climactic melodrama.

So Ramona, Destiny and their younger friends Mercedes (Keke Palmer, THE LONGSHOTS) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, THE KINGS OF SUMMER) get real good at finding guys in bars to hang out with their “sisters” and laugh and flirt and have a good time. And then say “what are you talking about, you were having such a good time, don’t you remember?” when they call later about their bank accounts. As our surrogate, Destiny shows some guilt about it. But she has fun too.

Victims include stock brokers and CEOs and shit played by Frank Whaley (BROKEN ARROW), Steven Boyer (BRIDGE OF SPIES) and Jon Glaser (TRAINWRECK). Devin Ratray (HOME ALONE, BLUE RUIN) plays a rich software dude who sort of befriends Destiny at the club after seeing her studying for school. There’s a squirmy scene where she calls him years later looking for a sugar daddy and he walks down many stairs of his giant house to get to a private place to quietly tell her he’s married now. I’m glad she hangs up.

HUSTLERS writer/director Lorene Scafaria is a playwright, actress and singer who wrote NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST and wrote and directed SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD. 2015’s THE MEDDLER was her first film with a title of normal length. She’s friends with Diablo Cody and has an executive producer credit on RICKI AND THE FLASH, a movie I love. According to Wikipedia, “She first became interested in writing when she would write up a report on a completely fake book once a month to win Pizza Hut gift certificates from her school.”

She based HUSTLERS on the National Magazine Award nominated New York Magazine article from 2015 The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves by Jessica Pressler. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s production company Gloria Sanchez offered the script to Martin Scorsese and other directors before letting Scafaria direct it, like she fuckin said in the first place.

It’s a good mix of familiar and fresh. It feels like a type of story and storytelling we’ve seen before, but not exactly like this. Its protagonists are morally compromised, but strippers/dancers in general are portrayed with sympathy, even admiration. It glorifies female bodies in the presence of gross horny dudes without feeling like sleazy objectification. It involves major, serious crime, but not a bunch of guns and violence.

I think Wu is very compelling, but the hype has correctly centered on Lopez. If she’s been better than this in anything besides OUT OF SIGHT, I must not have seen it. Here she does tough, loving, angry, petty, sadistic, funny, and of course a whole bunch of sexiness. It’s a thoroughly impressive performance even before taking into account the acrobatic pole dance reportedly done without a double. Jesus. She must’ve trained for that like she was doing a MATRIX sequel.

The movie is much more closely based on its source material than magazine-article-inspired movies like A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, PAIN & GAIN or THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, except for, strangely, its central theme. The article doesn’t imply much of a friendship between Rosie and Sam, as they were really called, but the movie is most successful in depicting the arc of their fictional friendship, from meeting to dissolution to bittersweet recollection.

There are at least 2 (two) shit tons of crime sagas that are all about masculinity and machismo, so it’s nice to see the occasional one about female friendship. I guess WIDOWS and SET IT OFF could count, and I liked those better, but they’re partly about taking on supposedly male roles, executing crimes that women wouldn’t be expected to do. This one is specifically about women performing a prescribed “female” role to take advantage of the men who are into that kind of thing.

These are layered characters, and depiction is not endorsement. But I’m glad women can have their own movies with bad role models. Honestly, that’s progress.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 at 7:29 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Hustlers”

  1. Saw this the other week. Agree that Lopez’s acting was really good, her best work since Out of Sight, but the director really should have asked Martin Scorsese to hook her up with his digital de-aging team, because she looked every minute of 50, which gave the pole-dancing scenes a real “It’s amazing to watch her hold her own against these younger competitors; it’s hard to believe this is her sixth Olympics” feeling.

    Constance Wu was completely out of her depth, as an actress and a dancer. Lopez ate her alive in every scene. I liked the plot, which I thought was half Widows and half The Big Short – “we crafty women have to hustle/take down these horny dirtbag men, because no one’s gonna look out for us and someday we’ll be too old to strip” crossed with “fuck ’em, they’re Wall Street scumbags – get that money!” But there were giant holes, and major aspects of their lives and how things actually worked were kinda handwaved by. The one thing I think this movie could really have used was a single Casino-style “this is how a big strip club actually operates, this is the business model and this is how they take you” scene. Oh, well. It was very well shot, and there was that one great montage of them dancing for and ripping off dudes (before the crash) set to, of all things, Scott Walker’s “Next.” I hate Scott Walker generally, but this was a really good use of that song.

  2. I have personally performed dozens of gentlemen’s club performers and edited literally hundreds more, and I can attest that all of them prefer to call themselves dancers. Far be it from me to dictate how one chooses to label oneself, but as a proponent of precision and clarity in language usage, I’m not sure I can sanction this. Yes, they dance, but is dancing REALLY the defining attribute of their profession? Cops do a lot of clerical work, but we don’t call them bookkeepers because that is not the crux of their job. (I also wonder how, say, ballerinas feel about this.) I get that “stripper” has negative connotations but I’m sure there’s a happy middle ground somewhere that neither slut-shames nor euphemizes into oblivion.

    Anyway I didn’t see the movie.

  3. I have not seen the movie either but as someone who has dated both professional dancers and exotic dancers from gentlemen’s clubs the former will definitely consider the latter delusional. They’re very condescending to them and want no association with them whatsoever. So they actually get offended if a stripper claims “dancer” as her career title. Ironically one of the pro dancers recently became a part time bartender and bottle girl at a gentleman’s club. So she now has to bow down to these chicks she kinda saw herself as being superior to because she’s lower on the nighlife pyramid in that environment. Times are hard in the city and some people definitely have to eat crow and wipe egg off their face. This is why you really should say nothing if there is nothing nice to vw said at all.

  4. * INTERVIEWS. I have performed literally dozens of INTERVIEWS with gentleman’s club performers. Kind of the most important word in the whole post so that’s the one my stupid thumbs decide to forget.

  5. Majestyk, I read your first post about 6 times, wondering if you were an actress with a long, racy IMDB. Thanks for your clarification!

  6. M- it’s been this way ever since Vivica Fox met the president’s wife in that crashed helicopter on the way to Area 51. The fight is long over.

  7. There’s “dancers” and “entertainers” is another big one. But yeah, even the skankiest of the skanky don’t refer to themselves as “strippers”

    A few add an “exotic” in front of “dancer” but that’s about as saucy as you get.

  8. jojo – ‘But yeah, even the skankiest of the skanky don’t refer to themselves as “strippers”’

    I don’t know about that. I knew quite a few that do and it’s actually kinda admirable how they just own it. There’s an assertiveness to it that a lot of women aren’t really capable of.

    To tell you the truth a lot of the ones that refer to themselves as “dancers” aren’t really built for that life. Lots of debauchery and shamelessness behind the imagery in those places. You got to have a really strong resolve and focus to survive it. Lots of naivete with the ones who just fall for the smoke and mirrors and don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into.

  9. You’ve edited literally hundreds of interviews with strippers? Why do we need so many interviews with strippers?

  10. Sex work tells us so much more about ourselves than we give credit for. I have no trouble saying I follow a lot of people in the adult industry on social media and have found myself interested in their lives and struggles beyond what they produce. FOSTA/SESTA (a bi-partisan bill meant to go after sex traffickers, but recent studies have shown no desirable results) have screwed up their existence and have emboldened them more to stand up for their rights, and I feel more sympathetic to them than some of you might.

  11. Emteem: You got me, man. But I got paid for it so I guess that’s the important thing.

    Also a bunch of them were pretty interesting people. I wouldn’t say it was time wasted.

  12. I’ve been to a strip club once. I hated the experience, more for personal reasons far too deep to discuss here but I didn’t go into it with an open mind either. Every story I have heard about them repelled me to it. And it has nothing to do with the women on the stage, but the other men I’d potentially be sharing the experience with.

  13. Strip clubs are a cesspool. I can’t stand them. Too much low energy for my tastes. Also I only get turned on by women when I know they actually are attacted to me. So the illusion/fantasy aspect holds 0 appeal to me. I’m far too grounded for that. Guess my life has been directed by Christopher Nolan all along.

    However I dated 2 strippers & honestly those were 2 of the best relationships I’ve ever had. I’m glad I experienced those women. We learned a lot from each other. I actually did break it off both times. But not for the reasons people would assume. I’ve never been possesive over women. So I was never jealous. If some suckers wanted to toss dollars at my girl while she hustles them more power to her.

    Those girls used to come home loaded and they were both very resourceful with money. I learned how to save money from one of them. They had no issues offering me 600 to 700 on any given day. But I never took it. It just felt like too much of an Ellis thing to do.

    The reasons I broke up were that one was quite broken and damaged and was expecting ME to put her back together. When in the end the only person who could “fix” her was herself. I loved her unconditionally but she was too insecure to ever believe that. Also was pretty possesive over me. Very jealous when other girls looked at me. She had a lot of shit to sort through. She’s better now a days. Went to therapy, got into fitness and works at another cesspool now a days….wall street.

    The other was just too needy and I require a lot of personal space. I was always an introverted lone wolf and she got too clingy. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t see her more than once a week. But aside from work and dedicating time to other relationships like family and friendship I also spent that time honing my passion. Writing and music just always came first. Around that time I also realized rapping was something I had to pursue as well. That was about a decade ago and all the time I spent mastering my craft I could’ve wasted on her. She lives in Ohio of all places now and has a nice family. Works in nursing and seems genuinely fulfilled.

    I’m proud of both those girls and how far along they came and to think if I was a judgemental piece of shit who turned his nose up on sex workers I would’ve never met them and also have them change me as a man for the better in a lot of ways as well.

  14. I’ve never had much interaction with strippers but I interviewed a lot of porn actresses a long time ago (2000-2005) and almost all the ones I talked to were smart, fun and funny, and very much had their shit together. The most prominent counter-example was Mary Carey, the woman who ran for governor of California. She was fucking bonkers and had the brain of a six-year-old.

  15. I really liked HUSTLERS — the first 45 minutes are a perfect little short film (ending with Usher’s cameo). I had to stop it there and go do some things, and honestly I could’ve left it at that. But I ended up finishing it the next day and I’m glad I did. Watching Lopez act the shit out of this role made me hunger for another film of her as Karen Sisco. OUT OF SIGHT 2 or whatever.

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