There are films about sex workers and there are films about heists. Sex workers often feature in heist films as the preferred form of celebration (along with booze, drugs and expensive apparel), but the strippers are seldom the ones committing the heist. Hustlers, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a New York Magazine article, is a film in which strippers do what President Obama didn’t: hold Wall Street bankers accountable. Sorta. Constance Wu stars as Destiny, the stripper with ambitions to climb to the top of the stripper pole. What she makes on the floor, however, isn’t what she takes home. The club takes a hefty cut from her dancing, as does the leering manager from her private lap dances. At least she gets a good deal on coke.
Destiny turns to the mother bear to teach her the moves and show her the ropes. On the roof of the strip-club, she shares a light with Ramona (a fantastic Jennifer Lopez) and is taken under her wing. “Come on, climb in my fur,” she says. And with that, they’re in business, baby! Ramona wastes no time dancing for the singles; she takes her clients in a private elevator to a VIP room with no security cameras and takes them for all they’ve got. She doesn’t steal, per se, she just gets them, as she puts it, “drunk enough to get their credit card but sober enough to sign the cheque.”
Destiny and Ramona enjoy their riches and develop a strong bond. They share their dreams with one another. Ramona wants to launch a swimwear line; she already has the name (Swimona) and the logo ready. Destiny wants more than anything to be rich. To some, this might seem shallow and greedy, but as someone who grew up with nothing like Destiny, it’s just common sense. Scarafia is acutely aware of the labour expended by these women and the economic realities from which many of them come. Sex work is work. So why shouldn’t they get rich off of it?
Ramona and Destiny enjoy the fruits of their labour, but it all comes crashing down with the parallel crash of the stock market. Suddenly, Wall Street men can’t justify dropping $10,000 a night on strippers. Ramona, a single mother, takes up a job at Old Navy and Destiny, a newly single mother of a baby girl, struggles to get a retail job even without disclosing her complete work history. The two women lose contact until Destiny gets her job at the club back. Angry to be among the ones suffering from Wall Street bankers’ crimes, Ramona concocts a plan that involves seducing wealthy men at bars and luring them to the club where they wheedle their pin numbers out of them.
Eventually, the morally dubious shifts into the felonious when they start drugging the men with a mix of ketamine and MDMA. The plan works and soon enough Ramona, Destiny and their group of strippers-turned-crooks are on top again. Of course, it doesn’t last, and this time the criminals are not let off the hook. Scafaria is clearly on the side of the women.These women committed a crime, but so did most of the men they were stealing from. There is a sense that Scafaria is afraid to question the women’s decisions for fear of betraying them. At the very end of the film, Ramona shares her philosophy with the New York journalist: “This whole city — this whole country — is one big strip club.” It’s a good line, but rings a little hollow when the film has left some questions unexplored.
The scenes at the strip club are some of the best in the film. Despite the obvious traps, the camera never feels like it’s leering at women. If anything, it’s admiring their skills. Our introduction to Jennifer Lopez is her breathtakingly athletic routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” If she wins the Oscar for Best Actress, as many are preemptively saying she should, I hope they choose that scene as the clip. She steals every scene with her spontaneity and layered performance, and yet steal would be an unfair word — her chemistry with her scene partners makes for a joyful watch all around. The scenes of strippers backstage, talking shit about their boyfriends and the management, are a bittersweet reminder of how rare it is to see positive depictions of working women that are constantly being pitted against one another. ■
Hustlers opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 13. Watch the trailer here: