‘I’ ON CULTURE
I had very mixed feelings leaving Hustlers, the new film by Lorene Scafaria. It had some really fun moments, much of the desired diversity that so many reviewers beg for these days and a sort of “Robin Hood for our times” premise. But morally, it was unreasonably sleazy.
Young Destiny (Constance Wu) is a girl from Queens just starting a “career” as a dancer at a high price strip club in Manhattan. Not doing very well at first, she comes under the wing (as well as the fancy fur coat) of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the lead dancer at the place who teaches her how to work the pole on the stage as well as the clock (to keep men interested). It is the first decade of this century, and the sleazy boys of Wall Street are willing to pay a lot of money to watch women writhe around on stage and provide certain services. With appropriate tutelage, Destiny, supporting her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), rakes in money but quickly spends it on a wide range of luxury items. All seems good until the Wall Street crash, when the money dries up.
The men at the club, and there are fewer of them, demand a lot more for their money — and there is not enough to go around. Destiny searches desperately for a new job and hooks up again with Ramona, who has been reduced to working in a clothing chain store. They begin to work with another pair of women, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to have one set up a date and then the others join in and take the guy to their old club where they have fun and spend a fortune using the man’s credit cards. Soon they sink lower, creating their own party drug (the scene where they cook it up is fun), which they drop in men’s drinks, then carry them into the strip club and max out their victim’s credit cards while the men sleep. Eventually, this leads to their arrest, and Destiny must decide if she’ll testify against the others.
Director Scafaria goes out of her way to stress the sisterhood of all of these women, not only the leading four, but others they get involved in their scheme, including crazed Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a drug addict whose actions, constantly ignored by Ramona, lead to the arrest of all the women. The scenes of sharing presents and stories are charming.
My real issue is how little attention is given to the fact that the women were clearly breaking the law and, in general, did not care how much damage they were doing. One man wound up in the emergency room, at least one other provided a scare in terms of a heart attack. Only briefly did the film touch upon one man whose life was shattered by the women. Watching Destiny start to crumple as the man begged for the return of a debit card so he could pay the mortgage on the house where he lived with his autistic son only to be physically pushed aside by Ramona was powerful. But it lasted only seconds. For the rest of the time, there was no sense of the women doing anything wrong. The men involved, in general, were morally wrong, the women were directly and knowingly violating the law. Unfortunately, some critics celebrate the sisterhood as a triumph of feminism without also noting that none of the women seemed able to get along without sponging off men.
The acting was good. Lopez was very strong as Ramona. She ruled the film’s opening with a brilliant pole performance and, even though she was second lead, was dominating. Wu gave a marvelously nuanced performance building on her star turn in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians. She goes from nervous outsider to powerful deputy to terrified mother really well. Palmer and Reinhart managed to create memorable characters in the smaller parts. Mercedes Ruehl, a charming veteran of show business, was great as Mama, a bartender who tended to all the girls.
This is a bright, fast-moving film. In a sense, it’s a feminist version of GoodFellas. But even more than that film, it pretends that doing bad things is fine. A little more morality would have improved the film for my taste.