One of the most refreshing things a film can do is focus on characters who need no introduction but have never been in the spotlight themselves. Strip clubs and strippers are everywhere in popular culture, but it’s hard to think of any film or series that fully appreciates and understands their work as deeply as Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. They’re usually relegated to the background in movies about mobsters or frat boys. When they are characters of narrative substance, it’s often for tragedy (Tracee in “The Sopranos”) or camp (Showgirls, Striptease). Marisa Tomei was wonderful in The Wrestler, but it wasn’t her movie. Male strippers had their victory lap in Magic Mike and XXL. All this time, though, there was a perspective missing: the women who do the work.
Based on a true story, as reported by Jessica Pressler in New York magazine, Hustlers follows a group of strippers in New York whose primary clientele are Wall Street brokers and executives. Destiny (Constance Wu), a new performer at the club, is light on the moves needed to ensnare the patrons. She looks up to Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who completely owns the stage and is instantly inundated with cash when she hits the pole, and the two develop a mentor-mentee bond. After a five-year pause in dancing due to pregnancy and failing to secure another job, Destiny returns to the club, but the entire scene has gone south with the financial crisis of 2008. She reunites with Ramona, and the two embark on a scheme with Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) to con men who would have eagerly thrown their cash around the club a few years before.
Ramona sells the plan—string along wealthy men in search of women to spend money on, drug them, max out their cards, and send them home—with the same charisma she brings to the stage. It’s clear where the transgression is, but the mix of financial desperation, familial need, and class rage make it all seem very reasonable. Ramona also reminds Destiny that nobody was prosecuted in the financial crisis despite the total theft of people’s pensions. Not a single financial institution bore accountability and no one went to jail for their crimes. The women’s method seems downright honest by comparison.
The relationship between Destiny and Ramona is reminiscent of Henry Hill and Jimmy the Gent in Goodfellas: Destiny aspires to be like Ramona at first, but as they proceed to build something unique together, it’s obvious that it’s not made to last. The main thing that separates this from most heist or crime movies (other than the wigs and outfits) is Hustlers’ mix of Magic Mike and Ocean’s 8—what once felt like freedom becomes increasingly suffocating, while the story maintains an emphasis on friendship and solidarity.
When asked how much their labor is worth, these strippers give a CPA-level response broken down by time, service, client, and a myriad of other factors. The club is like any Wall Street firm, with top earners, corruption at the top levels, the safe players and the risk takers. Destiny rises to the occasion, putting a latent business acumen to good use, keeping track of what target was hit when, for how much, using which card. As a framing device, she relays the story to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), always emphasizing that her growing up poor and lack of higher education doesn’t mean she’s less than anyone else. Had she been born wealthy, she probably would have been just as successful as one of her marks, or even in Elizabeth’s place.
The entire cast, no matter the size of the part, is phenomenal, and Mercedes Ruehl back on the big screen as the house mother is a welcome sight. But the film completely belongs to Lopez and Wu, each of whom will surely be shoo-ins come awards season. Every character is fully realized, and even one-dimensional supporting roles are never wasted. A tight, funny, informed script and smart direction from Scafaria bring it all together to make a story that could have lasted another hour without wearing out its welcome.
Hustlers/ R, 110 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
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