Based on a true story that went viral in a deep and revealing 2015 New York Magazine article, Hustlers takes a very specific story of former strippers building their own empire by poking holes in the golden parachutes of their wealthiest clientele and spins it into a rollicking swirl of female empowerment amid an interminable class struggle. There may be no more stark contrast in wealth and worth than a strip club – it’s a strobe-lit portrait of the social order wherein the wealthy collide with those they deem otherwise worthless, where the objectified meet face-to-face with those who objectify them. Currency is the unifying element in this social sphere – those who need it and those who have the power to decide who’s “worthy” of receiving it. But that cuts both ways. For the smug suits in the gallery, their currency is cash. For the performers on the stage and walking the floor, their currency is sex – the projection of it, the suggestion of it, even if – especially if – it doesn’t actually lead anywhere. If anything has the potential to destroy the patriarchy, it’s the patriarchy’s collective penis. Hustlers is about a group of women who understand that and take advantage of it.
This story plays out through the eyes of Destiny (Constance Wu), who starts stripping as a way to make ends meet. Abandoned by her immigrant parents and struggling to support her aging grandmother, Destiny wants to be able to cobble together enough to make her own life – take care of her loved one and maybe have a little left over for herself, not having to rely on anyone else to help her. But based on the money she initially brings in – especially after all the requisite payouts to the sleazy men who run the club – she just isn’t “good” enough to accomplish her goals. Destiny’s idol in stripper success is Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, as brilliant as advertised), a headliner at the club whose performances always end with the stage covered in green. Ramona, who casually walks around draped in fur and is so connected she has designs on starting her own swimwear line, takes Destiny under her wing, showing her the ropes and teaching her the moves and the attitude that will lure away the cash from the high rollers in the club. And that she does: Destiny becomes a hot commodity, and all of the sudden stripping is no longer just a means to an end.
It’s all glitter and champagne until the Great Recession of 2008, when the mortgage bubble burst, the markets crashed, and all the big spenders started disappearing from the clubs. After a two-year hiatus in which Destiny hooks up with an abusive boyfriend, has a child, and dwindles her fortune, she’s right back where she started: broke, desperate, and with a family to support. What to do? Return to the club scene, now overrun with Russian prostitutes? She does, for a while, until she once again crosses paths with Ramona, who has moved on to the next big thing. Rather than be restricted to a tainted club environment, she’s decided to start her own underground business and loop the clubs in as financial partners. The job is complicated, both from a logistics perspective and a moral one – reconnecting with former clientele at bars, slipping drugs into their cocktails, dragging them to a club, and proceeding to run up massive credit card tabs while they’re out cold.
One could easily question the ethical, not to mention legal, implications to running such a scheme, and Destiny does. But she’s too desperate – and, ultimately, too enterprising – to turn away the opportunity. One could also express concern over these women willfully objectifying themselves rather than charting a more upstanding path…but the upstanding path is rigged to benefit only a certain few. If the system’s already broken, why not throw another wrench in it? These women are only valued for their bodies, so they use their bodies to undermine the systemic oppression.
The film works in precisely the same way, a satire of our obsession with the sexual transaction that uses a male gaze industry to tell a female gaze story. And to that end, it’s an absolute joyride of subversive empowerment, set to a cascading combination of period-specific club jams, timeless pop gems, and an occasional dash of classical Chopin compositions, a sonic diametric of the glitz of the performance and the arch precision of the production behind it. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria adapts that 2015 article into a fanged crime thriller mini-epic in the Scorsese mold, like Goodfellas in G-Strings. It makes sense, then, that producers initially wanted Scorsese to direct the film, but not even Marty could work this material the way Scarafia does, understanding not only the impossibility of the modern economy but also the plight of women in this world, especially women who look a certain way, or come from a certain place, or have a certain skin tone. True to its inspiration, Hustlers takes an angry bite out of a male-dominated genre and saunters away with a lipsticked smirk.