In other hands, Hustlers could have been little more than ghastly superficial people being ripped off by other ghastly superficial people, wallowing in implicitly approved materialism in the name of pseudo-feminist revenge. But despite inevitable outcry from the Incel crowd (check out some of the ludicrous 1/10 user ratings on the Internet Movie Database, seemingly based on little more than fragile masculinity), that is absolutely not the case here. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria infuses this fact-based tale of strippers ripping off Wall Street bigwigs pre and post 2008 financial crash with riveting cinematic aplomb, inviting comparison with the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Indeed, there is certainly something of a Henry Hill in Constance Wu’s Destiny, who comes under the wing of experienced stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), forming a friendship that will ultimately lead to the afore-mentioned criminal activities.
A neat framing device allows the film to unfold with insightful narration, as Destiny is interviewed by a journalist called Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) – essentially a stand-in for Jessica Pressler, author of the magazine article on which the screenplay is based. We see Destiny’s struggle to support her ailing grandmother, her loneliness in the big city, how she is victim to scams and mistreatment at multiple turns, and the general unfairness of a system rigged against her. Not that the film makes this as an excuse for what she does. However, it does provide a compelling set of reasons. Romana by contrast is a street-smart character who you can’t imagine ever going straight – a kind of Jimmy the Gent to Destiny’s Henry Hill. Of course, she justifies what they do to Destiny and the various other girls they drag into their con-gang. They succeed, and become a “family” of sorts, before the inevitable downfall.
Of course there’s a female empowerment narrative, but one that is interesting and asks important questions – not just about Wall Street men and the women they use and abuse, but also about the nature of America in general (“Money makes me horny” and “America is a strip club” being two key lines deployed at crucial points). There is sexualisation and nudity on display here (and drug abuse and strong language, whilst I’m chucking out warnings), but in a limited way that allows just enough scene-setting titillation, before delving into the story. Even that titillation is told directorially in a very interesting way, with an opening shot that follows strippers onto the stage, around the poles and so on, offering a perspective I can’t ever recall seeing in a film before (ie from the stripper’s point of view, not the customers). A scene shortly afterwards shows just how difficult it really is to pole-dance, stripping back the façade (if you’ll forgive the pun) and delving into the athletic abilities required. The pole-dancing in this film feels more like circus acrobat art than anything (in fact, Jennifer Lopez said in an interview that it was the hardest part of the performance).
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Oscar nominations for Wu or Lopez. I think it even stands a good chance of a Best Picture/Director nomination too. For me, Hustlers is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. A genuine pleasant surprise.