Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lilli Reinhart, Cardi B, Wai Ching Ho, Mercedes Ruehl
As women, we often bemoan the way we are portrayed in movies, and rightly so. More often than not, mainstream films are written and produced and directed by men, and therefore women (generally young women) will be entirely objectified, created with barely a word or meaningful action to offer the plot and seen as either overly sexualised or frumpy and unattractive (from a male perspective). So, it’s quite the relief to see a movie that not only represents women for the well-rounded human beings we actually are, but also allows the women onscreen to own their stories and their physical attributes. Based on a newspaper article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers does all of this in abundance, but does it all actually work for the greater good, or is it missing the point?
In 2007, Dorothy (Wu), a young girl living in New York, works as a stripper to support herself and her grandmother (Ho), and to pay off her grandmother’s debts. When she starts working at a new bar, Dorothy (known as Destiny when working) meets Ramona (Lopez), a long-standing stripper who takes Dorothy under her wing and teaches her how to pole-dance and entice the male clientele to spend more. As a team, they rake in the cash, living highly lavish lifestyles as a result. When the market crash of 2008 hits, the girls and the bar find themselves lacking in clients, who were mainly the Wall Street types and high-ranking CEOs, CFOs and the like. As a way to subsidise their income, the girls begin calling up old clients, inviting them out on “dates”, a ruse to drug them and drain their bank accounts and credit cards when spending at the club, with the girls getting a cut of the spending. Knowing that when the guys are sober they won’t want to risk their jobs or family life to report the women to the police, they consistently get away with their ploy, but what happens when they start to run out of clients, or if they eventually pick on the wrong man?
Writer/director Scafaria has done an excellent job of creating meaningful and even relatable characters that are funny, emotional and supportive of each other. The women are strippers, obviously, but not one of them doesn’t enjoy it and own it, unashamed and unabashed experts in their work. Some of them are doing it to support themselves and/or those who rely on them, some doing it to put themselves through school, some for reasons not fully revealed to the audience. These aren’t just women with “daddy issues”, each of them has a reason for what they do, and a reason for existing. They also have their own struggles, but they look out for and support one another, and women doing such a thing is beautiful to see. Dorothy/Destiny, in particular, betrays a vulnerability whenever she insists she doesn’t want to rely on anyone (assumedly a man) to support her. But what she may come to realise is that it’s ok to rely on your friends, and it’s this that Ramona sees as a chance to be a mother figure to Dorothy. On top of this, some of the best scenes occur backstage of the club, before or after the women perform. Rather than being bitchy or tearing each other down, they have fun together and help each other with no ulterior motives. It’s truly heart-warming to see and is a great example of how we should conduct ourselves in reality.
Part of the framework of the film is based around Dorothy being interviewed by Elizabeth (Stiles), a journalist doing a write-up of the girls’ story, much like Pressler’s real-life article. It makes sense to frame it this way, but it’s not entirely necessary. The film would stand just as well without it, with its only real use being that it shows what Ramona and Dorothy’s relationship had become by the time their stripping days were behind them. It’s by no means detrimental to the film, it would just be mostly unnoticeable if it were lifted out. Other than this, Scafaria’s direction is integral to her characters being well-represented onscreen: we are easily guided through how we ought to be relating to these women, whether that be in a empathetic way, an eye-opening way, or any way Scafaria wishes us to view her characters, and we’re happy to let her lead us as she clearly knows her story and characters inside-out.
As the lead of the movie, Wu is on top form. She has been critically acclaimed for her roles in the likes of Crazy Rich Asians and T.V. show Fresh Off the Boat, but Hustlers is the role that exhibits just how versatile she is as a comedic, dramatic and emotional actor. J.Lo is (and looks) phenomenal, a woman who defies aging in all ways possible and who’s talents know no bounds. There has already been some Oscar buzz around her performance, and although she has had arguably meatier roles in her career, it’s her portrayal of Ramona that really brings out everything we love about Lopez as a performer; her acting and dancing skills are on full display in a strong depiction of womanhood, especially a woman so comfortable with herself and at an age often considered to be “past it”. Supporting Wu and Lopez are Palmer, Reinhart and Cardi B, who round out a group that are in equal parts funny and endearing. What they are doing is obviously illegal, but it’s so easy to fall on their side and understand why they are doing what they are doing. Ho adds another emotional aspect to it as Dorothy/Destiny’s grandmother, who, despite not knowing exactly what her granddaughter does for a living, wonderfully represents a more modern and thoughtful older generation. Individually the performances are fantastic, but as an ensemble the cast absolutely shines, with credit due not only to the actors but to Scafaria’s skill as a writer and director.
If anyone has ever spoken negatively to you about pole-dancing, this movie may change your mind about it. These days it’s often used as a means to improve fitness, as it really is an intense workout, it’s not all about male pleasure. That’s not to say you’re going to go out and start pole-dancing and/or stripping now, but Hustlers will show you that there is so much more to it and the women who perform. They even make it look fun. Between Scafaria, Wu, Lopez and the supporting cast, this is one movie that is successfully made by women, for women, its ultimate message being that no matter your circumstances or how difficult the world can be, as women we should be supporting and uplifting each other. Hustlers shows us just what we’re capable of if we work together (though perhaps in a more legal way than ripping off men with more money than sense).