To be honest with you, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing “Hustlers.” Don’t get me wrong, I love films about female empowerment, and I will cheer them on every time. But, something about this one just didn’t really appeal to me.
It’s based on a true story of a group of strippers drugging men — or getting them extremely drunk — and running their credit cards up as high as they can. At first, the women lure the men to the club where they work, securing a percentage of the bill. A finder’s fee, if you will. But, eventually, they strike out on their own and take these men to a hotel where they max out the card, cutting out the middlemen.
While that might be the story behind the movie, “Hustlers” goes into something much deeper, or richer, than the basic Robin Hood story that’s been painted, or even the article by Jessica Pressler that started it all: “The Hustlers at Scores.” The film tells a story of friendship and sisterhood. And yes, it’s a film of female empowerment.
Jennifer Lopez leads the cast as Ramona, a stripper with years of experience, red-soled designer shoes and a fur coat that might make PETA reconsider its stance. She becomes acquainted with Dorothy (Constance Wu), a newcomer to the club who’s barely making bank. One night she sees Ramona in all her glory on stage. The audience is mesmerized and can’t throw bills fast enough. Dorothy is mesmerized, too. (I was a bit starstruck, as well.)
Ramona decides to take Dorothy under her wing — or boa — and show her how to bring in the big bucks. She shows her moves, introduces her to the men with money, and gradually builds Dorothy’s confidence, persona and bank account. Dorothy even changes her name to Destiny to sound more, umm, glamorous.
When Destiny becomes pregnant, she stops working at the club. When she has a falling out with the baby’s father, though, she’s forced to leave her toddler at home and return to the world of dancing when more clothed jobs aren’t available. Ramona is still at the club, but she’s not dancing for dollars anymore. Instead, she’s “fishing,” bringing in customers with credit cards, like I mentioned earlier. Destiny becomes involved, and the two bring in enormous piles of cash from unsuspecting patrons.
“Hustlers” raises a lot of questions. Are these men getting what they deserve? They’ve used these women as objects to use and discard, even trying to push the women into situations that make us question what is consensual.
The film shows us a number of victims until one customer changes everything. They max out his corporate card, which gets him fired. They take every last bit of cash he has, including his mortgage payment. When they refuse to give it back, he goes to the cops, which is how this became a notable story.
The film makes you question how far you would go to protect those you love or ensure a better life for them. Destiny has a little girl, who needs a home and food and clothing and all those necessities some families take for granted. Ramona has a daughter, too, and she would do anything to provide for her, even working at Old Navy during a down time.
Wu is meant to be the central figure in this story. She’s got top billing, and she’s meant to be the character we focus on the most. But, Lopez outshines her in every scene they’re in. In fact, when the story is focusing on Destiny, you might find yourself wondering “What’s Ramona doing?” Lopez is electric and draws your eye every single time. She’s a gorgeous mama bear that will cut you if she needs to. She’s also in amazing shape for a woman of 50. Or any age, for that matter.
“Hustlers” might seem, on the surface, to be a movie you’ve seen before. It’s a crime movie, a gangster movie, a grifter movie. It’s about sex workers, strippers. All of that is window dressing, though. Underneath the familiar trappings is a rather subversive film, one that makes us question a lot about our culture and society.
A lot has been made about the end scene where J. Lo says America is a strip club where a few have money and the rest of us are dancing for the money. I won’t belabor the point or provide my own opinions. It’s a statement that’s meant for controversy and discussion. And, in the end, it leads our eyes away from what might be the film’s most radical statements.
“Hustlers” gives us a portrait of a world in which women do not succumb to pettiness or unnecessary cultural skirmishes. These women — who are different races, come from different backgrounds, have different cultural perspectives and subscribe to many different beliefs — build each other up and support each other’s goals. They aren’t at war with each other. They don’t put each other down. They don’t tell each other how to live their lives. They simply love each other with startling intimacy — and their closeness, their loyalty, cannot be undone by any event, no matter how big or small. Maybe this sounds trite. However, I can assure it isn’t, at least not for any woman reading this. (There’s a lot more complexity and nuance on the screen, but I’ll allow you to discover and dissect that for yourselves.)
Bottom line: “Hustlers” is a film that will surprise you. No matter how many similar films you’ve seen, or how the marketing hits you, it is a narrative that will get under your skin and unnerve you, if you let it.