In the tradition of Hollywood films depicting the slimey underbelly of excess, Hustlers arrives as another reminder of the flawed players on both sides of the gender and class lines. But instead of coming off as a statement in favor or against the depraved nature of it’s material, Hustlers feels more a like a safe parable on friendship and survival instincts. Based on a true story, the film announces itself in a loud and glamorous fashion. But once you reconcile with the volume, how valuable is what the film has to say?
We’re introduced to Destiny (Constance Wu), a stripper who’s not very good at the whole stripping part of the job. We learn that’s she here because she has nary any other career opportunities. During one job interview, she’s grilled about not having retail experience, to which she snarks “How can I gain retail experience if no one offers me retail experience?” She lives with her grandmother, whose house she hopes to help pay off. Destiny gets that opportunity when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the veteran stripper at the nightclub, who dances on the pole with the grace and efficiency of a pro athlete. Instantly enamored by the attention Ramona draws, Destiny befriends her and willingly goes under Ramona’s teaching tree.
In an unconventionally sweet scene, Ramons shows her how to pole dance and lap dance. She urges Destiny to think critically about how to work the system. “Do you have stock in this place? Then don’t put money into it,” Ramona chides when she sees Destiny ordering a drink from the bar. Ramona’s values are quite clear – this is a business, and her customers are only worth what they can provide her financially; work the men, don’t let them work you.
The strip club has it’s stable of characters, most notably an underused Cardi B as a brash and audacious Diamond (based on Cardi’s real-life past as a stripper). Meanwhile, Keke Palmer makes an impression by… well by just mostly yelling her lines. She plays Mercedes, who along with Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) are recruited by Ramona and Destiny for an extremely dangerous scheme in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. Recession. Faced with unemployment and responsibilities to their families, Ramona and Destiny look to exploit the rich douchebags who frequent the strip club; steal from the stealers and creeps is their viewpoint.
As the exploits get wilder and the tension builds, Hustlers appears to be as frustrating as it is dazzling. For all the deserved praise towards the film’s best performances, including Lopez’s impeccably confident turn, the film somewhat sputters in the second half after a terrific first half. The film initially takes it’s time to reveal it’s characters and motivations; relying on montage, a great score, the facial expressions of our characters, and even sound effects to get across ideas thoroughly and efficiently.
But when it’s time to unravel the success of these wannabe high rollers, the careful characterization is put aside for hasty plot progression. As a result, the second half conflict feels rushed even if we have a decent idea of why these characters are making certain choices. At one point, after a disastrous night that nearly puts her in jail, a tracking shot shows Destiny dragging her daughter to school while covered in blood. Clearly things have hit rock bottom and the scene works as a visual representation of that, but what doesn’t work as well are the issues between our two main characters and how they escalate.
This is ultimately a film about friendship disguised as a crime drama, but the friendship the film built earned a greater focus on it’s flaws and the characters’ inner turmoil. The film is a morality tale, but one without the insight to dissect the morality. When Ramona chastises Destiny for sympathizing with one of their victims, we’re not given enough of a window into Destiny’s own head to discover why she feels this way. This is a woman who is quoted as saying “hurt people hurt people”, in a film in which we’re repeatedly told not to sympathize too much with the victimized 1 percent. It’s fair to ask why a hurt person would have a change of heart, and what does it mean for our own humanity.
However, none of this is to say that Hustlers fails. On the contrary, it is a fun, provocative, enthralling exploration of people who have the deck stacked against them, and the question of how far is too far in trying to turn the tables. When do the victimized become the oppressors, and is there such a thing as fairness and balance? If the film is to be believed, the answer to that last question is probably no. So we’ll continue to dance for what we feel we’re owed; some will accept what they’re given, some will try to exploit the system, and some will always get hurt. It’s the only party we seem to know how to throw, and unfortunately the roles available for us to play are limited.