Monday 21 March 2022

Movie Review: Hustlers (2019)

A jaunty crime drama set in the sordid world of strip clubs, Hustlers accentuates a culture of sisterhood but glosses over both victims and accountability.

In 2014, Dorothy (Constance Wu), who uses the stage name "Destiny", is being interviewed by journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) about her career as a stripper. Her story begins in 2007, when Destiny starts working at New York City's Moves Club and meets star performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). The two women strike up a friendship and start performing as a duo, entertaining Wall Street executives in the VIP rooms for huge tips. 

Times are good, until the economic crash of 2008. Wall Street hollows out and the easy money stops. Destiny falls on hard times, has a child, but breaks up with the father. Unable to find other work, she returns to stripping. But the industry has changed, with Russian performers dominating and clients expecting explicit sexual favours. Destiny reconnects with Ramona, who has a new plan: target men at bars, drug them, take them back to Moves, maximize their credit card spending, and share in the proceeds.

If Hustlers was about a group of men drugging women and robbing them blind while they are semi-conscious, it would be a lot less celebratory. But here writer and director Lorene Scafaria downplays the criminal behaviour, and allows messages of female empowerment and women enjoying their self-justified chemical assaults to predominate. The energy is palpable and joy crackles from the vibe of underdogs turning the tables, but with the victims all but ignored, the feel-good parties get tiresome.

The film is inspired by real events chronicled in Jessica Pressler's The Hustlers at Scores magazine article. Especially in the opening context-setting 20 minutes, Scafaria adopts a glitzy aesthetic at the strip club, but from the women's perspective. The men fuel the industry, but here they are either bank machines or leaches. Admitting the drudgerous reality beneath the glamour, the strippers are portrayed as good natured and doing a job as best as they can, but also battling fatigue and age, and scrapping for whatever crumpled dollars they accumulate at the end of the night.

The strongest elements evolve from the bond between Destiny and Ramona. Their friendship anchors the narrative, and is a heartfelt portrayal of two different women riding the industry's ups and downs. Jennifer Lopez is a confident force of nature as Ramona, while Constance Wu is more quietly perceptive. The cast also includes Kiki Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Madeline Brewer, and Mercedes Ruehl, while singer Lizzo and singer/ex-stripper Cardi B add a spike of stunt casting in minor roles.

Outside the stripping milieu, Destiny looks after a grandmother then a new child, while Ramona has a teenaged daughter. The family members are little more than expedient props, but more disappointing is an obsession with materiality. Every dollar the women earn seems to be spent on expensive fashions and accessories, concepts of saving for a rainy day or self-improvement discarded in favour of the next shopping spree.

Hustlers provides a welcome voice to performers who are often just the background decoration in other movies. It's unfortunate these characters are only humanized after resorting to criminal behaviour.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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