“HUSTLERS” RIVETS ON THE VISCERAL LEVEL OF GREED AND POWER
A Film Review by Tim Riley
“HUSTLERS” (Rated R) Whenever a movie is inspired by true events as in the case of “Hustlers,” there is a natural curiosity to learn the backstory of a movie that focuses on the intersection of sexual exploitation, illicit drugs, larceny, greed and power set in the seedy world of strip clubs.
The article “The Hustlers at Scores,” written by Jessica Pressler for New York magazine in 2015, recounts the players in a criminal ring of strippers who drugged men and entertained them at nightclubs while racking up enormous charges on their credit cards.
The arc of criminal activity in “Hustlers” ties into the run up to, as well as the aftermath of, the global financial crisis of 2008 when Wall Street investment banking firms went bankrupt and the mortgage market was blowing up.
At the start of 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a young woman struggling to make ends meet, to provide for herself and her aging grandma. Working at a strip club may have been an act of desperation but seemed like a golden opportunity to grab a decent sum of cash.
Faced with the reality of a business steeped in graft and corruption, her job was not easy. Club managers, DJs, bouncers and bartenders expected a cut of the earnings, leaving Dorothy all-too-often taking home a meager payday after a long night of stripping.
Adopting the stage name Destiny, her life is forever changed when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s top money earner, who is first seen dazzling a crowd of mostly businessmen in suits tossing wads of cash her way as she twirls around the pole with acrobatic ease.
Without any doubt, Ramona is a force to be reckoned with, demonstrating that she’s always in control, knowing just how to tease money out of the hands of her clientele as if she were taking candy from a baby.
For Destiny’s good fortune, the two women form a bond, and Ramona offers a crash course in the various poses and pole moves like the carousel, fireman, front hook and ankle-hook (thanks to the press notes for the nomenclature of stripper movements).
Since her main interest in stripping is financial survival, Destiny finds that mentoring from Ramona, along with another stripper (Cardi B) teaching the art of lap dancing, is the most effective way to overcome her apparent lack of talent for the business.
Forming an enticing duo, Ramona and Destiny start working together in the champagne room to please the Wall Street high rollers with their exotic, seductive moves that are far more suggestive than titillating.
Along comes the Great Recession of 2008 and Wall Street takes a giant hit, thereby turning the previous huge cash flow from the brokers into the hands of the strippers into a mere trickle, causing Destiny and Ramona to go their separate ways.
Ramona goes to work in retail and dreams of creating her own clothing line. Destiny becomes a mother to a baby girl. Neither one is satisfied with an ordinary life that fails them as breadwinners and persons in control.
Becoming innovative to new methods, Ramona and Destiny recruit Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and innocent-looking Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to frequent upscale bars to target potential male clients.
Crossing the line into illicit activity, the women have the knack of finding wealthy men they hoodwink by spiking their cocktails with ketamine and MDMA so that they will become pliable victims handing over their credit cards.
They have no qualms about maxing out the credit cards in one evening of sexual tease of nearly comatose clients. As one cop is quoted in the magazine article, men “don’t want to admit to being victimized by women.” The result is basically carte blanche for larceny by the strippers.
The game is working really well for the stripper squad until competitors get into the act. As challenges pile on, Ramona recruits other to keep a good thing going, and this is where mistakes are made.
The entrepreneurial spirit of Ramona and her crew eventually runs into serious glitches, and it is certainly a detriment when a junkie like Dawn (Madeline Brewer) becomes a catalyst to their world collapsing when a client offers credible evidence of malfeasance to the police.
Jennifer Lopez may be the big star in “Hustlers,” but the backbone of the story belongs to Constance Wu as her character, at various points, is interviewed by the magazine journalist (Julia Stiles) for her version of the sordid business.
“Hustlers” doesn’t paint an exactly pretty picture of the players. Coming off for the worst, Wall Street dudes are mostly arrogant, crude and ultimately pathetic. The strippers, seemingly disadvantaged and working the system, are hardly angelic.
Though the film is an entertaining look at grubby manipulation and payback, the Jessica Pressler article proves to be an even more fascinating revelation of flawed individuals in pursuit of either hedonistic pleasures or financial gain.
The best bet is to first take in “Hustlers” at the cinema and then read the magazine article that inspired the film.