Thursday, September 12, 2019


"Stripper movie" isn't a term that often imbues a viewer with confidence. That said, the true story adapted for film by writer/director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) exceeded my expectations. While not great, Hustlers is solidly entertaining and far from the fiasco of Showgirls.

Set in the early 2000s, the film focuses on a struggling stripper's (Constance Wu) friendship with the club's main attraction, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Taking the newbie under her wing, Ramona helps Destiny (Wu) earn enough money to keep her grandmother's house and pay for several high-end shopping trips. The script offers some insight into a stripper's mentality towards her clients (as Destiny learns to bilk them of as much money as possible).

Stradding the 2008 Wall Street crash, the film shows us the glory days of high-price clients for Ramona and Destiny and the slim pickings just a few years later where the pair, and a couple of new girls (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) step-up their game from maximimizing a drunk client's spend to actually drugging them and maxing out their credit cards.

The film's structure is a bit awkward, as is the choice of Julia Stiles as a reporter interviewing Wu after the truth of the scandal has hit the media. The idea allows the story to unfold from Destiny's perspective, but I'm not sure the choice, including all the scenes in later years, do much more than stall the story (although they do allow for one late reveal). And for a stripper movie, there's actually very little stripping, at least following Lopez's big performance early on (where one can see that she certainly put in some time practicing her pole dancing skills) as the film focuses more on the role of the women's relationships and their burgeoning criminal careers.

A choice Scafaria makes and sticks with throughout the film is to allow the strippers to make moral objectionable choices but not necessarily judge them for doing so. (There's a far less generous view taken towards their victims.) That choice is mirrored in the actual legal fallout of events as little prison time was served from those involved with the schemes. It's obvious that the director likes the characters in the film enough to allow for the human moments between the women to be at least as great a focus of the story as their criminal endeavors. While nowhere near as witty as The Wolf of Wall Street, the film does include some memorable sequences of the strippers taking advantage of their clientele in awkward situations (with both humorous and disturbing results). While initially skeptical at upping their game to drug the clients, it isn't too long before the ladies find a way to justify their methods, to themselves and each other, despite the condition it leaves their prey in once the wolves have picked their bones clean.

The film has a better sense of humor than expected, both in the women's approach to their chosen profession and in how they come off to people outside the lives they have crafted for themselves. The script also showcases the genius of the plan in how unlikely their victims were to report the crimes, how unresponsive the police were to take the few complaints they received seriously, and how the strippers were eventually brought down by the same greed that they took advantage of in their clients. There's a moral there, as in Wu's character's consistent, and often (unnecessarily) repeated, proclamations of wanting to stand on her own while failing to realize that she found both the happiest and most successful moments of her life when leaning on and working with Ramona and the other women.

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