This is story about control
My control Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I’m gonna do it my way
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
I am ‘Cause it’s all about control,
And I’ve got lots of it
Janet Jackson: “Control”
This is a movie about control. And it’s also based on a true story. Hustlers begins with the opening of Janet Jackson’s famous song, “Control,” playing and we are introduced to our main character, Destiny a new stripper at a high end New York strip club. She is literally taken under the wing of Ramona, a veteran of the club who shows her the ropes of the club. Money is easy to make under Ramona’s tutelage as many of their customers are wall street high high-rollers willing to drop hundreds — even thousands — of dollars in a strip club, for just seeing some T&A up close and personal. Things don’t go so well after the financial crash of 2008 and after some time apart Destiny is back working at the club but in thew shadow of the recession, business is no longer booming. That is until Ramona, Destiny and a few others decide to take matters into their own hands and go fishing for customers to hustle into spending large amounts of money in the club, maxing out their credit cards in drinks and tips. And folks, especially you guys out there (you know who I’m talking to), if you come to Hustlers expecting some titillating strip scenes with T&A all up in your face, you’re gonna get played — and rightfully so. This is an exceptional crime drama that seems to get a lot of its filmic influences from Martin Scorsese.
Side note. First of all, I’ve been to a few strip clubs, usually not sober, and I was not really into it. And most of the time the guys in the audience looked like they were just passing time. It was never like it is portrayed in the movies. Second of all, I did not know you could charge tips at a strip club. I’ve also only been to the low lying ones in my city, in neighborhoods most people would not want to wander into. Also, San Francisco had (and probably still has) weird laws about which clubs can serve alcohol and what the strippers can do.
It is without a doubt a crime film and is most reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The ladies are all likable and we especially end up caring most for Destiny, who is played by Constance Wu, and her family. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona is believable as the veteran and eventual ringleader of the group. And she turns in a strong performance as someone who is always working an angle. While we get much focus on them, we get only passing back stories for the rest of the crew, unfortunately. Destiny anchors film’s point of view character. She ends up representing the normal everyday girl that spirals into a lifestyle of crime.
This movie also makes it clear that even though crimes are being committed against these men, none of these victims are in the least bit sympathetic, except for maybe one. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a sympathetic male character in the film. Most of these guys are the same Wall Street wolves that crashed the economy in 2008, and it’s made pretty clear they don’t deserve our sympathy in the first place. If you think this is a film that is some anti-male jeremiad then you are missing the film’s finer points. But if you are a man, you may just find yourself feeling stupid. “Oh, I’d never get fall for that hustle.” you may say. Yeah, you probably would. But you may also look at how you look at or treat women who work these jobs differently. That is not to say that they are all going to drug you and max out your credit card, but they are regular people trying to make it in a country that is just one big hustle. Unfortunately their way of making it involves ripping guys off of tens of thousands of dollars at a time. I may not be qualified to call this a feminist film, but it certainly is about a handful of women who seize control from men who typically have exploited them in all sorts of manners as shown in the film.
Once the hustling schemes are set, we get many, perhaps too many, montages of the scam. They find a mark, get him interested in the company of these beautiful women, he gets slipped a spiked drink, and one of them decides that it’s a good idea to go to the strip club. Next thing you know he’s spent thousands of dollars on a bar tab and tips. It is such an simple shuck that only men would fall for something like this. And once things get going good, we are treated to scenes, on top of the hustling scenes, of the girls living the life and spending money on bling like there’s no tomorrow. They even throw a Christmas party where they exchange overpriced gifts with each other.
The movie is framed in flashbacks as told by Destiny years later as she is being interviewed by a reporter. Julia Stiles plays the corresponding role of the reporter who wrote the original article from which the film is based on. You’ll end up getting the feeling that this is a confessional. Destiny frames and anchors this story. After all, this is her story. And through her, we get the most personal, especially her desire to take care of her elderly grandmother.
Wai Ching Ho, probably best recognized as Madam Gao from Netflix’s Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Defenders, play’s Destiny’s grandmother. She is probably the hippest Chinese grandmother I’ve ever seen. Playing against type, she is well aware of where the money comes from and is even there during the gang’s Christmas party having herself a good old time.
Rapper (and former stripper herself), Cardi B cameos as a fellow dancer at the club. Her role may have been played up more in the advertisement but she is not one of the main characters. Lili Reinhart has some great little bits of characterization as the nervous member of the crew who tends to nervously throw up every other scene.
Written and directed by Lorena Scafaria, who does not have a history of big budget productions, Hustlers has a look of a higher budgeted film than it’s reported $20 million. It was filmed on location in New York and apparently at a real strip club. Neither of these are cheap to do and it is a testament to the creative talent behind the scenes to milk not only a great look but a great sound to the movie. Much of the soundtrack are jukebox hits from Janet Jackson, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears, and even Lorde.
Hustlers may not revolutionize film. But I think having a deft female writer and director at the helm helps it serve up its story in a very entertaining manner without being exploitative in its adult subject matter. Lot of guys may not like it because they think they came for a big screen strip show, then get shown how dumb they can be. That’s on them. Enjoy the film for the crime drama that it is.