Bob Fosse and Martin Scorsese have a lot to answer for. American filmmakers now seem incapable of telling a true crime story without aping the templates established in Fosse’s Star 80 and Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers (let’s take some comfort from the resistance to titling it ‘Hu$tler$’), based on a 2015 New York magazine article about sociopathic strippers, ticks all the boxes you expect it might. Fake talking head interviews? Check. Extended tracking shots through nightclubs? Check. It’s a Wonderful Life style freeze frames? Check. Voiceover narration delivered over slo-mo sequences? Check. Top 40 soundtrack? Check.
Interviewed by a journalist (Julia Stiles), Dorothy aka Destiny (Constance Wu) relates her story of how she takes a job at a New York strip club ‘Moves’ in 2007. Initially struggling to bring in a reasonable weekly wage, Destiny is taken under the wing of veteran stripper and Moves headliner Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who shows her the ropes and the moves and explains how to extract the maximum amount of cash from the suckers who frequent the club. Soon Destiny is living the good life. She’s paid off her grandmother’s debts and is giving her young daughter a comfortable upbringing.
But then the crash of 2008 happens. With Moves relying so heavily on Wall Street for its clientele, the club takes a heavy financial hit and the strippers are forced to perform sexual favours in the VIP room if they want to make money. Ramona comes up with the idea of ‘fishing’, which involves the girls heading to Manhattan’s poshest bars, chatting up unsuspecting brokers, drugging their drinks and stealing their cash and credit cards. The scam seems foolproof, as the mix of MDMA and ketamine leaves their victims with no memory of what happened, and even if they did, they’d likely be too embarrassed to inform the authorities.
“Drain the clock, not the cock,” is a piece of advice Ramona gives to Destiny, instructing her young charge on how to keep the punters in the VIP room for as long as possible without giving them any real satisfaction. It’s a philosophy the film itself seems to have adopted. The running time is stretched out by repeating the same sequences ad nauseum, and by the eleventh shopping montage I was beginning to wish someone had slipped a ketamine/MDMA cocktail into my coffee so I didn’t have to endure Hustlers’ interminable catalogue of capitalist cruelty.
The trouble with Hustlers is that while the strippers’ victims are chiefly a collection of stereotypical stockmarket scuzzballs, the strippers aren’t any better themselves. Any initial notions that Ramona, Destiny and co. are enacting some Robin Hood quest is quickly dispelled as they spend their ill-gotten gains on a never-ending supply of handbags, shoes and coats made from dead animals. I get the sense the film wants us to root for this insufferable gang of Kardashian wannabes, but Scafaria’s direction is so flat and lifeless that it’s difficult to figure out how she wants us to view her protagonists. There are moments played for comedy, complete with reaction shots of a dog, but the grimness of the anti-heroes’ actions and the haphazard staging of such sequences suck any potential humour out of the scenario.
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Similarly, it’s never really made clear how we’re meant to view Dorothy/Destiny, and neither the film nor Wu’s confused performance get a handle on who she is. From scene to scene her persona seems to waver between a naive waif with a conscience and a ruthless gold-digger. Of the strippers, only Lopez embodies the rugged toughness you imagine their real life counterparts must have possessed to pull off this scam. Much like Mel Gibson in Dragged Across Concrete, Lopez is playing a character whose personality isn’t exactly a million miles away from her own. It’s well documented that J-Lo is fond of a fiver, and the actress channels her own ruthless determination into Ramona. She’s positively chilling at times. In one scene she turns nasty on Destiny, commanding her to hang up the phone on a man who lost his mortgage thanks to their scam, and it’s the one moment in the whole film that hints at a more interesting, character focussed take on this story.
Ultimately, we’re left feeling that this story is one that’s incompatible with modern mainstream American filmmaking, whose puritanical nature is never going to delve into the sleaziness of its scenario. The movie leaves us with the notion that “America is one big strip club” as food for thought, but the question you’ll more likely find yourself asking is why multi-millionaires would be so keen to spend their time at a strip club where the strippers don’t even take their clothes off?
Hustlers 2 Stars Out Of 5
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria; Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B, Madeline Brewer