From pole to picture house – Hustlers is an adrenaline-fuelled and neon-hued incarnation of Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article ‘The Hustlers at Scores’, which recounts the lucrative and lurid lives of former strip club employees who swindle a slew of Wall St clients out of thousands, after the 2008 financial crisis to fund their lavish lifestyles.
Or a modern day, raunchy Robin Hood, if you will.
Based on true events, the film is fated to be steeped in substance abuse but its emotional themes are delivered with substance – from the abhorrent actualities of strip club treatment to the empowered feeling of ecstasy that courses through your blood as the flock of femme-fatale swoop in to take one another under their wing.
Directed by American Screenwriter, Lorene Scafaria, the film exudes exoticism and feminism in equal measure. Scafaria doesn’t shy away from the females’ figures and there’s a diverse display of nipples that distract but don’t detract, (perhaps because it’s populated with actual strippers). In turn, she stays true to the inherent quality of the setting without turning it into a caricature and instead celebrates the power the ‘Polefessionals’ bring, without the lascivious leer of the lens.
Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, the ringleader of the stripper squad and takes ingénue, Destiny (Constance Wu) under the wing of her chinchilla coat and teaches her the titillating tools of the trade. Supporting the squad are Annabelle (Lilli Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), each of who are based on the real-life girl gang.
The film begins in 2007 inside strip club ‘Moves’ with a dainty but determined Destiny, who’s about to be knocked off her platforms a by jaw-dropping and enviable entrance by none other than J.L – an entrance that might have made even Jessica Rabbit stumble in her stilettos. The pole dancing performance that follows is one that shimmers in your memory like a dream just yearning to be remembered. Scantily clad in Costume Designer Mitchell Travers’ silver rhinestone fringed body suit, that teases copious cleavage, J.Lo’s routine on the pole is rewarded for all her behind-the-scenes efforts that resulted in bodily bruises. And it’s no surprise, as Variety learned that Scafaria treated it like a ‘sports movie’ and the girls had to adopt ‘extreme athleticism’ for convincing performances.
Dancing in a deluge of dollar bills is yet another brick she can add to her edifice of entertainment enterprises.
The pole is essential in this moment, if not the whole movie, as it proposes the pole is the tool that gets the girls’ exactly what they want. When Ramona wraps up her routine, an enamoured Destiny pursues pole practice and learns a thing or two about the perfect lap dance from Diamond, in an eye-rolling cameo by Cardi B.
Aligning closely with Pressler’s real-life report, Destiny’s story told on the silver screen, meanders frequently through past and present and the neon lights that once lit up the room are suddenly juxtaposed in muted monotones, distinguishing a present heaven from a past hell, as she gives her interview to reporter Jennifer (Julia Stiles) about the life she lead and recounts fondly of her bond with Ramona.
At first we learn the girls make their gains from innocuous performances with rational remunerations. But now the year is 2008 and the once reliable Wall St merchants are encumbered by the financial crisis and they’re out of pocket. But for the girls to stave off financial oblivion and as comeuppance for the crass gestures previously endured, the girls formulate a pernicious plan to drug their clientele with ketamine MDMA, said to ‘wipe their memory and make them happy’.
What follows, is an Ocean’s 11 style, swiftly realised reconnaissance, where Ramona gathers her girl gang and functions as the mother den, providing an omniscient voiceover about the bottom, middle and top-tier guys – teaching her novices about ‘fishing’.
A night-time drive sequence captured in Scorsese style, with all the ‘Bokeh’ city lights and rain flecked windows, we know it’s dodgy dealings from hereon. Ramona and Destiny’s relationship is getting stronger and they bond in a brilliant ‘cooking show segment’ over the perfect MDMA recipe for success (or disaster) with a little classical music for flair.
If you’ve read the article, the plan works perfectly until it doesn’t. What once seemed as easy as drugging the men before they were inveigled into revealing their ‘mother’s maiden name’, is now a pandemic for the police to investigate.
As Ramona and Destiny are single mothers to daughters of their own, desperation and separation blight what once was and make life choices that could change of the course of their ‘womance’, especially when morals are foregrounded.
In her final scene, Ramona declares: ‘The whole city is a strip club – everyone’s throwing the money and everyone’s doing the dance’, summarising not only the movie’s central theme but instils us with a euphuistic message about our country’s capitalism, which leaves us all a little chagrined.
In the film’s post-credits, we learn a few facts about the charges against them and Destiny’s confessions. But criminals as they were, it was Roselyn Keo’s destiny that her real life story, would go on to inspire one of this year’s most ribald and rebellious movies delivered by some powerhouse performances worthy of Academy acknowledgement.