“Hustlers” Movie Review

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     I’ve never really understood why men are inclined to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for adult entertainment at strip club establishments.  Perhaps it’s the illusion of a life they seek or desire to experience that these encounters with scantily clad women provide, but it never ceases to amaze me what some people are willing to spend in order to have that “epic” night made famous in “The Hangover” trilogy.  Writer / Director Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” looks to flip the script on those testosterone driven male fantasies, utilizing much of the same frame work as Steve McQueen’s “Widows”, by following a group of desperate female strippers who con rich Wall Street types into maxing out their credit cards, as they hit the town on what they believe just may become the night of their dreams.

     Headlined by a show stopping Jennifer Lopez, along with Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, the story follows the initial rise of Destiny (Wu), a young Asian-American woman looking to break into the adult entertainment industry in New York City, only to find her first experiences working as a stripper to be less than lucrative.  Scafaria’s script, based on a magazine article by Jessica Pressler, is less about the raunchier aspects of life in a strip club, and more about the outside of work lives and personalities of the characters involved.  Sure, they take their clothes off while dancing and grinding on rich men for a living, but it’s the people they are supporting, and the desire for eventual self fulfillment that the story is most interested in telling.  Destiny, like her co-workers, have no intention of working in the industry forever.  It’s more of a get in while the money is good, and get out with the means of living a comfortable life.

     The first act of the film takes place in the early to mid 2000s where Destiny finds herself in awe of Ramona (Lopez), a veteran in the business whose performances are met with the kind of paydays Destiny could only dream of.  Fortunately, Ramona sees a lot of her younger self in Destiny and takes her under her wing, showing her how to spot the big fish in the room, and more importantly, how to lure them into spending obscene amounts of money in private dance rooms.  Seemingly overnight, Destiny begins to enjoy success as Ramon’s sidekick, turning a once demoralizing job into the key for her ability to help her ailing grandmother and start a viable life of her own.  That is until we hit 2008 and the Great Recession results in a steep drop in spending by the very people who caused it in the first place.

     With the clubs nearly empty and most of the strippers having been let go, Ramona and Destiny, along with two of their closest pals, Mercedes (Palmer) and Annabelle (Reinhart), put together a hustle that may become just lucrative enough for each of them to stay afloat and maybe stick it to the greedy Wall Street bankers they feel are ultimately responsible for their downfall.  And if success is defined by the amount of money they are able to scam from these guys, then they no doubt consider their latest enterprise worthwhile.  Problem is, the con involves drugging the victim, while coercing them into maxing out their credit cards in strip clubs where a number of employees such as door men and bartenders are actually in on it.

     This, of course, leads these ladies down a dark and unpredictable path much worse than the seedy confines of their previous occupation which is certainly saying something.  There are entire levels of trust and friendship that are tested when much of what is planned inevitably goes wrong, leaving many of the characters to ponder the morality of their crime spree.  All the while, Ramona is a single mother trying to provide a life for her young daughter, and Destiny remains dedicated to supporting her grandmother in ways that are truly heartfelt and somehow leave you believing our protagonists are more than justified in continuing to carry out their elaborate scheme.

     It’s also easy for an audience to see who the true criminals are here.  The loathsome investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and stock brokers responsible for the crippling financial losses of millions of Americans who went free and were never charged with anything.  Scafaria ensures practically every scene is built upon the rage that comes from scraping by with a hard earned middle class living, only to lose everything due to circumstances you had no control over.  That’s what drives Ramona and Destiny to push the very same limits these guys did, and in their own minds, rightfully take back what they should never have lost in the first place.

     We will undoubtedly hear plenty in the coming months about Jennifer Lopez’s performance and for good reason.  She invigorates Ramona with the kind of smarts and confidence you would only see in someone who has been through the ups and downs of life, regardless of the industry you are in.  But what’s amazing here is her ability to pass down what she has learned to a person she knows is need of guidance, doing so in a way that comes off as both compassionate and all business at the same time.  The traits you see in this character are the result of an exceptional acting performance that is clearly awards worthy, as is the film itself, which dares to tackle a number of weighty subjects whose emotion and tone completely drown out the fact we are watching a film taking place in the world of strip clubs.  GRADE: B+