I’ve never been inside a strip club, but I’m pretty sure you don’t hear Bob Seger in them very often.
Hustlers flashes the mulleted dad-rock hero out at just the right moment, late in a 99-minute run-time full of almost-too-perfect soundtrack moments. The true-story flick about strippers who traded their profession’s honest transactions for outright criminality after Wall Street destroyed the country is in many ways a triumph, the titillating setting, consistently clever music cues, and tidy economics lesson all serving something satisfyingly larger.
Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) is the club’s queen, and Destiny (Constance Wu) is the new girl. One fur-draped roof-top meet-cute later, the two are on their way to becoming the co-leaders of a group so tightly and earnestly bonded they call each other sister without irony over Christmas dinner. The world they inhabit – and ultimately learn to pimp to their own benefit, after the 2008 Wall Street crash shatters the risk-reward math that made it worth dealing with men who range from sadly pragmatic to disgustingly exploitative – is presented by writer-director Lorene Scafaria as an engrossing sociological ecosystem, not just an excuse for cineplex audiences to ogle flesh.
Lopez gets the best speeches and moments, and does just about enough with them. But it’s Wu’s leading lady and the excellent supporting work of Keke Palmer as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart as Annabelle that glue the thing together. Julia Stiles puts in sturdy work with slim material as a fictionalized version of the journalist Jessica Pressley, who gets a writing credit here but ESPN’s Bomani Jones somehow doesn’t, despite one moment about 15 minutes in that absolutely owes him a zeitgeist debt.
The ensemble’s excellence is vital to making Hustlers work. The filmmaking is not quite up to the standard they set. Scafaria is never quite willing to drag the camera far enough out from her subject to show the tendrils of the sex work ecosystem. The visual work she and cinematographer Todd Banhazl deliver is uneven, heavily reliant on medium and close shots square-on to the person talking or reacting. There are a handful of strong stylistic moments where the audience’s eye jumps back to capture an artful frame of the physical spaces these women occupy and create, but they owe more to veteran production designer Jane Musky. From the light-filled cream-toned high-rise apartment that proves Ramona’s won at something, Musky builds clear and concise character sketches into the world around Banhazl’s camera. He just never quite finds anything creative to do with them in his own craft.
A limited visual style isn’t the same as having none, of course. The choices Scafaria makes about how to convey information accumulate gradually into a buzz are simple but effective. She establishes the challenges and glories of these women’s world from up close, in brief unmissable moments illustrating the unctuous men the new girl has to tip out from her first night’s meager take-home.
And when you’ve got a compelling set of things to point a camera at in the first place, it’s harder to be bothered at how the guy working the shutter operates. Hustlers is fucking funny. It earns its jokes and never overstays them. It manages to avoid slipping the crucial line between laughing with and laughing at. Scafaria never lets the fundamental sorrow at the core of the lead character’s life disappear for too long, hewing to the classic crime-movie recipe that every queenpin’s downfall contains morsels of tragedy.
Huslters is heavier-handed in notching off the ways the stripper game changed with the 2008 crash. But there is something refreshing about a flick that trusts its audience to already understand what happened and who was to blame. And something to be said for ditching subtlety in showing how the post-crisis New York sex work scene was suddenly ruled by even more sociopathic vultures who’d survived the crash.
The movie gets its emotional beats right throughout, highs and lows and mediums, and even when it’s hitting you with a hammer there’s something velvet about the impact. The girls mark their last truly great night by a refreshing contrast to the transactional dollar-by-dollar business deals they’ve been making with pinstriped skeeze for years. Usher, playing himself, showers the girls in not just singles but a warm appreciation for the hustle that’s absent from their Wall Street clientele, while they dance to his own hits. It’s a deeply charming too-brief moment in a smart, crisp movie full of them.
The crash that follows galvanizes the remaining hour or so of the ripped-from-headlines story, which you can choose to Google or not before you buy a ticket.
Ask yourself: Would you recommend someone read about Lufthansa and Henry Hill before showing them Goodfellas? Best to let this wash over you clean too, for the same reasons. There’s plenty of engrossing, messy, complicated stuff happening alongside plot.
Not all of it works – Destiny momentarily stops her interview with Stiles’ reporter to say she doesn’t want to reinforce stereotypes about strippers that are heavily reinforced in the surrounding 95 minutes, in the hollowest example – but most of it does. Scafaria’s movie is deeply invested in the sympathetic humanity of these women, at once valorizing their scam and doing them the courtesy of treating them as full, complex people instead of cartoon heroines or villainesses. There are essentializing tropes and cheaply sketched character details, but men are the butt of almost every joke Hustlers tells. Better still: deeply obscene men, deserving marks in almost every case.
That “almost” is carrying a lot of weight, however. Even before the calamitous, sadsack denouement of the sisters’ micro-cartel, it’s clear they’ve crossed some sort of line between caring who they rip off and caring only about sustaining their own lifestyles.
This is ultimately a story about class, inequality, and the deadly new gilded age we live in. The sisters’ scheme allows them to sidestep the Great Recession realities each had initially confronted. And as they participate – however understandably – in this dodge of the reality check 2008 gave so many millions of families, they are corrupted by it. Their own escapism quickly overshadows the true-but-trite rationalizing Ramona offers in a speech about men who stole from firefighters’ pensions. Greed and sloppy recruiting bring them (back) down, and by the time they fall, it’s hard to know quite how you feel about seeing their glory turn sawdust.