“This story is about control.”
It’s hard to believe that at first as Destiny (Constance Wu) stares at herself in a cheap backstage mirror, reflecting both on the curve of her sparkling eyeshadow and no doubt the choices she’s made to get into that room filled with glitter pasties and scissors to cut tampon strings. Yet as Destiny rises and begins to walk down a corridor, an unseen announcer bellowing from the impending stage, we realize that this is in fact, in her control: shot like a prized fighter entering a ring, we only see the back of Destiny’s slick black hair as she follows the chain of dancers to the spotlight, her slight quiver of anxiety immediately showing us that this is her choice, but it’s a hard one. This is her story of fighting her way to the top.
“Hustlers” has quickly been deemed one of the most relevant films of the year since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week. Production company Gloria Sanchez, hot off of Netflix hit “Dead to Me” and indie summer gem “Booksmart,” has reached the triple crown with “Hustlers,” marking perhaps the most important year yet for the two-woman operation helmed by Jessica Elbaum. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria adapted New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” for the screen, bringing the same heart and effortless charm as her 2012 directorial debut “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”
An all-star cast featuring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lilli Reinhart, and Keke Palmer includes cameos by Cardi B and Lizzo, making “Hustlers” an easily Instagramable film; hashtags practically create themselves, with #ShowMeYourHustle encouraged at the screening. It would be easy to write “Hustlers” off as a stripper movie, THAT stripper movie that shows off J-Lo’s curves and is an anthem for girl power around the world, applause included. And “Hustlers” does do all of those things, but not as you would expect. Instead, it’s focused on the cracks of that story, the minute details that are caught in an oversized gold link bracelet wearing down on the wrist out of guilt or the green “Approved” message after the swipe of a credit card.
A typical coming-of-age underdog sports story ensues at first as Destiny quickly befriends the talented Ramona (a flawless Jennifer Lopez) and the two create a lifelong friendship over their shared craft. Or something like that.
Ramona teaches Destiny how to properly pole dance, and the emphasis on the physical strength required is thoroughly explained. But the selective choices of how to present the strip club during this first act is what is most striking; the camera is less focused on the bodies, never lingering on an exposed breast or a grinding lap dance. Their bodies are not viewed as props like the men onscreen constantly insist on prodding. What easily could have been a “Magic Mike”-level drool fest for viewers is instead just a means to an end: this is their work, we get it, why spend any time longer than needed?
There is only one moment where the audience is shown a full dance routine, and that is when we finally understand Destiny’s enthrallment with Ramona because let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be Jennifer Lopez? It’s a cinematic burlesque, an ode to the female form on a backlit stage as Lopez’s toned silhouette is only visible. She as Ramona is seducing the money that is thrown at her; the eyes that are watching her are merely stepping stones to wallets. Lopez is a moving sculpture, and the camera’s presence on her is out of respect, not objectification. Destiny, like the viewer, is mesmerized by the artful show-womanship.
“Does my money make you horny?” Ramona purrs as she struts past Destiny. All we can answer is yes, yes it does.
The film cuts between a seemingly-present day Destiny (albeit 2015, present-day for the original article’s publication) and her retelling to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) of meeting Ramona and their subsequent scheme. In the film, 2007 for New York City strippers was an honest girls club with a mother hen boss — cue the “stripper with a heart of gold” subplot– that paid well if you had the right clients. Usher in a self-effacing cameo even visited their club as “Love in This Club” booms and champagne is popped in slow motion.
The subsequent economic crash in 2008, however, altered the industry forever, forcing clubs to find cheaper dancers and Destiny to seek other ways to earn. Thus Ramona’s idea of drugging clients–and later utter strangers–and charging thousands of dollars to their credit cards was born.
It’s Gordon Geckos, post-Reagan and pre-blowjob, that the former strippers target at New York bars. There is a quick summary of how banking works: a pan of crowded trading floors coupled with a voiceover explaining the hierarchy of Wall Street guys is like a montage of lambs going to slaughter. They may be the “Wolf of Wall Street” but soon they will be preyed on too.
Fellow strippers Annabelle (an underused Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer, spot-on with cutting comedic lines) join Ramona and Destiny to enact their plan of mixing ketamine and MDMA into drinks before charging cards. It’s lengthy to debate the morality (a particular scene with the women dragging a corpse-like figure is especially cringeworthy) but it’s important to note the distinction between Ramona and Destiny: according to Destiny, she’s the one who sympathizes with the men the most.
“Hustlers” isn’t a perfect movie, and very easily could be seen as a girl’s night comedy. But there is something about it that lingers, mainly from Scafaria’s choices and the onscreen chemistry between Wu’s stoic tears and Lopez’s determined depth. Regardless of the reason to see it, there is always the same take away at the end: women, especially those marginalized and underprivileged, have to hustle every day in a world of men. But damn, do we make it look good.