The multi-hyphenate star delivers a standout turn in a snappy, fact-based caper about strippers scamming Wall Street bankers
After the dog days of August, littered with one lazily patchworked Hollywood product after another, theres something wickedly indulgent about the arrival of Hustlers, a slick, flashy, seductively entertaining segue from one season to the next. Its ideally positioned, premiering at the Toronto film festival before a mid-September release: it matches the immediate gratification of a summer movie with the artful substantiveness of an awards contender yet remains not quite definable as either.
Based on an acclaimed long-read feature by Jessica Pressler, it tells a story that feels familiar and fresh. Familiar because were accustomed to the fact-based crime movie formula, but fresh because we dont usually see it played out with women. Its 2007 and Destiny (Constance Wu) has discovered that the life of a stripper isnt quite as glamorous or as lucrative as she thought. The competition is fierce, the clientele is either creepy (What did daddy do to you?) or racist (Hey, come here Lucy Liu!) and by the time the men she works for have taken their cut, the money is barely adequate. It doesnt help that shes not quite sure what to do or just how to move her body to make more money, something shes keenly aware of when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).
Ramona is everything Destiny isnt: shes in control of her sexuality, her business, and the men shes trying to impress. Shes also more than happy to take Destiny under her wing to show her some more dextrous moves, and the pair become fast, financially fruitful friends, working the champagne room together, earning more than ever before. But then something happens: the recession. Destiny gets pregnant, leaves the club and years later tries to re-enter the workforce. But her inexperience outside of stripping makes her largely unemployable and so she returns to the place she knows best. Without excessive overspending from Wall Streets most aggressive earners, its a bleaker landscape, and once shes reunited with Ramona, she learns about fishing.
To fish is to leave the four walls of the strip club and bring in guys from outside, to fool them into thinking theyre genuinely interested before drugging them, stealing their account details and racking up exorbitant credit card bills. To Ramona, post-recession, its not just a means of survival but a fitting revenge. However, once the pair start earning huge amounts, things soon spiral out of control.
There are so many immediate pleasures and vicarious thrills to be had in Hustlers, a giddy, gaudy blast of a movie, that its easy to forget the intricate framework which houses it. Through writer-director Lorene Scafaria, whose Susan Sarandon vehicle The Meddler was a warm surprise at Toronto in 2015, a world traditionally seen through leering male eyes is now blessed with a canny, incisive female lens. Even when films have focused on strippers as something other than window dressing, theyve still been written and directed by men and have smoothed over rougher edges, turning them all into titillating one-note archetypes. Instead, Scafaria views the strip club like any other workplace, filled with internal politics and an ever-changing hierarchy of power. It can be intimidating for sure, but theres also a genuine camaraderie between a group of women who realise that combining their talents makes them that much more powerful.