Pole-dancing is the new fitness trend. Millions of women, of all shapes and sizes, are trading in their running shoes for stripper heels as they around a pole and into empowerment. As the #Metoo movement and modern feminism continue to prevail, women’s desire for power and control over their own narratives and bodies will continue to be at the forefront. In swings Hustlers, a film that tells the true story of women searching for the same kind of control and stability and going about it in a heinous way.
Starting out at a strip club, new stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) struggles to fit in and survive in this new environment. Most of her tips are going to male management and she struggles to get along with the other girls until she meets Ramona (a dazzling Jennifer Lopez). Taking Destiny under her wing, Ramona teaches her how to hustle in the stripper business, granting her financial independence in the process. However, once the 2008 financial crisis hits, their wall street clientele starts disappearing, knocking the women off their financial perch. Determined to screw the men who screwed this country, Ramona and Destiny team up with two other girls to attract these men and take as much money from them as possible, by any means necessary.
Writer and director Lorene Scafaria does a lot right to make the film work, starting with taking the stigma out of the story and treating these women with humanity. The soundtrack is sophisticated, combining everything from rap to Frankie Valli to classical to Lorde. The camera work is gritty when it needs to be, especially at the beginning. However, the story wears thin about 60% of the way through as their schtick starts to feel monotonous. With its one hour and fifty-minute run time, there really isn’t an excuse for tediousness.
It’s really Wu’s and Lopez’s movie, their complicated relationship driving the whole affair. Even when things turn sour, the two women clearly care about each other and what the other thinks of them despite rough feelings between them. Based on the on Jessica Pressler’s article for New York Magazine’s The Cut, the relationship between the real-life women is a lot more fraught and complicated. Though this through-line of female friendship is a nice way to button the story, the question of whether there were enough repercussions for their actions remain.
As for its star-studded cast with the likes of Cardi B and Lizzo, their brief appearances leave much to be desired. Mainly used for comic relief at the beginning of the film, their presence is missed the rest of the film. It’s worth bringing up that maybe their casting would have been more effective as surprise cameo, similarly to a certain famous R&B singer who shows up midway through the film. As for the Oscar buzz surrounding the cast, especially Lopez, it might be a bit early to call it. Sure, it’s a solid, layered and empowering performance, but besides the glitter and gemstones and the twirling around, is it strong enough to be Oscar-worthy?
The film does a really good job separating stripping and sex work from the crimes these real women committed, condemning the latter but showing the beauty in the former. As much as our culture stigmatizes strippers, it still works. The athleticism and grace it takes to turn on the pole every night is enormous, and the film does an admirable job showing the art, thought and comradery that goes into the profession. If it glamourizes anything, it is the relationships made between the women, to the point of their ruin.