“This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” Jennifer Lopez utters this cynical nugget of wisdom to Julia Stiles’ journalist at the end of Hustlers, the new movie about exotic dancers who drug Wall Street dudes and drain their credit cards. Based on a true story chronicled in a scintillating New York Magazine piece by Stiles’ character during the stock market crash, the film positions itself as a girl power piece, and for the most part it pulls that off. But it’s also a cautionary tale that makes us question everyone involved.
J-Lo’s analogy rings true for those unsatisfied with their lives, those who dream of material items and a swankier lifestyle as seen on TV (the Kardashians are tellingly seen on the tube in a background scene) and in music videos (no coincidence Cardi B has a bit part here). For women, often this kind of excess/success simply isn’t possible in a traditional job because, in case anyone needs reminding, we still get paid less for doing the same stuff as men. So many turn to sex work — web cams, porn, prostitution and stripping, which might be naughty and even nasty to some, but is in fact empowering to many women who do it, and in terms of the money exchange for services rendered, it’s honest. Woke culture has brought a new perspective on these professions and that’s a good thing.
Though Hustlers is refreshing in its attempt to show that these women are not victims (Janet Jackson’s “Control” drives the opening scene to hammer it in right off the bat), the truth of the narrative is ultimately about dis-honesty and that might leave viewers of both sexes a little conflicted, not to mention hurt the progress made when it comes to reducing the sex-shaming of women in this line of work. Or not. Most reviews out thus far have called the film empowering, but I think that has more to do with the powerhouse names involved.
When it was introduced at the screening I saw last week, the filmmakers, including writer/director Lorene Scafaria, admitted the movie was hard to get made initially because of its storyline. As we watch the stars — Lopez as Ramona, a gorgeous elder stripper and Constance Wu as Destiny, a cute young newbie trying to help her grandmother out of debt and get the finer things in life for herself — we want to root for them.
These fun and sexy gals develop a genuine mentor/student, mother/daughter-like friendship that brings emotion to their story. But when the justifications for stealing and the subsequent designer shopping sprees start, it’s kinda hard to applaud. The greed of the men and materialism of the women here are equally distasteful. Unlike say Showgirls, which throws glitter on these stereotypes and asks us not to take anything too seriously, or Pretty Woman, which worked the aspirational princess fairy tale angle, Hustlers tries for a Sex and the City vibe, which might work as a feel-good set-up if not for the whole drugging and deceit thing.
Wu is supposed to be the moral center, but there’s a disconnect in her acting that doesn’t quite hit the spot. J-Lo on the other hand brings nuances to her role that, in spite of her character’s insensitivity, makes her seem real. She’s the mastermind behind the whole thing, and shows no remorse for her victims, even the “nice” guys (one sad fella loses his job over the credit charges and has an autistic child to support). Like Destiny, Ramona’s a parent herself with a daughter, so this seems a bit inconsistent, but her performance suggests she’s been through some shit to get to that level of compartmentalization or what some might call, “thinking like a man.”
At 50 years old, Lopez looks utterly amazing, by the way. Storyline conflicts aside, this is a popcorn flick that pretty much has it all — eye candy featuring a diverse cast of women representing all colors, shapes, sizes and ages (would’ve liked to see more of Lizzo though!); perfect music (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” proves the ultimate stripper number); and a blend of heartfelt and comedic moments. Yes, Cardi’s brief turns on screen are a wacky, wiley win, and she utters the most quotable line of the film: “Drain the clock, not the cock!” Despite the explicit chatter, the film take cues from this line, with scant actual sex and nudity and instead, more teasey moments.
The finance-obsessed fellows, depicted for the most part as dumb, smarmy and self-entitled, obviously don’t get the same kind of consideration the female characters do here, and that’s intentional. As one of the (female) producers said before the screening: nobody asked these questions about how the women in The Wolf of Wall Street were represented. Come to think of it, maybe Hustlers’ contextual inconsistencies in terms of right and wrong and lies and truths are intentional too. It’s a story about females told by females so the dynamics of sex, power and money are going to be convoluted, because no matter how we earn a living or how luxurious it may be, the luxury of simplicity — like equality itself — still eludes us.