New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Hustlers

This is a femme-centric production that manages to be sexy yet never exploitative. Jennifer Lopez still plays the girl from the Bronx, but is surprising as a savvy, greedy, conniving yet nurturing presence. This is a guilty pleasure filled with a crew of beautiful perps. As Ramona, she leads a band of stripper/lap dancers to rip off rich, male sleaze bags. It’s a gangster story with Scorsese overtones, but also with a nod to Adam McKay’s humor/crime tale The Big Short.  In some ways this plays like another version of Widows proving women can be just as bad as the boys.

Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria based the script on Jessica Pressler’s New York article, “The Hustlers at Scores.” This is a film that was produced, shot and edited in a crazy short amount of time of 29 days. It wrapped in May and went to theaters by September. Despite the compressed production timeline, it doesn’t feel like the essential elements of filmmaking are missing. The camerawork, especially in that long  opening trucking shot following Ramona through the strip club to the stage is an eye-popper. The interestingly designed bare costumes and music are thoughtfully combined to place us squarely in the timeframe. Hearing Janet Jackson sing “Control” as she walks to the stage is an example of the music propelling the story. 

Lopez simply sizzles as Ramona. She trained for six weeks to get her body in shape for her pole dancing scene and it’s a swirling, slithering, lusty sequence. She is confident, defiant, and takes charge whenever she’s on the screen. Her Ramona combines a mix of maternal love (she’s also a single Mom to a daughter) for her girls alternating with greed that fuels her ferocity to complete the mission,  no matter the consequence. She asks Destiny early in the venture, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Lopez is creating a new kind of female anti-hero.

Destiny (Constance Wu) is the gorgeous young novice stripper who gets lessons how to reel in the Wall Street suits’ cash. When the Recession of 2008 hits, it’s these very customers who caused it. To make matters worse Destiny gets pregnant and, in short order, is a single Mom with no job and a beloved grandmother to care for as well. When Ramona tells Destiny “Come on, climb in my fur” as they share a smoke on a grimy rooftop of the New York city strip club,  it’s the start of a friendship that becomes a deep family connection. 

Scafaria takes us back to the boom and bust economy of 2007-2008. When Wall Street imploded it also took down tangental businesses like strip clubs. Ramona figures out a way to survive and thrive in this new reality by forming her own gang who become free agents. They target likely finance execs as “marks” and ply them with drinks and drugs to shown them a good time while maxing out their credit cards. Ramona and Destiny have fun creating a sisterhood presiding over this criminal empire.

The women justify their plot by reminding themselves that the money their stealing was ill-gotten gains in the first place so why not steal it back? The women point out that not one of the men who created this mess went to jail. Will they? You find out at the end of the film. 

With no other prospects she’s back in the strip club in 2010 where Ramona has cooked up a way to stay afloat recruiting Destiny, along with Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to go “fishing” for clients. Perhaps in an attempt to keep the film from running past two hours, Scafaria shorted development of Palmer and Reinhart’s characters. Even though they were essential members of the gang, you’re never given more than thumbnail versions past the caricatures of a wisecracking black girl and the white girl with the sensitive stomach. Rapper (and former stripper) Cardi B makes a cameo appearance. She’s quoted recommending this film since it matches much of her own experience. We wish there had been more of the popular Cardi B and singer/flutist, Lizzo, showing off their talent, but they are lost by mid film.

The scene of Destiny and Ramona kitchen-testing the drug recipes to use on their victims uses the standard quick cut montage technique that’s been over-used in rom-coms and caper flicks for years. It still plays funny here because of the way it is edited.  Scafaria effectively uses a visual punch line which gets a big laugh.

Scafaria made the decision to write the script as if she were the magazine reporter interviewing Destiny and Ramona, though the story in only told from Destiny’s point of view. Julia Stiles plays interviewer Elizabeth, who is shot almost entirely in a medium close up with a blank, neutral expression on her face. A few times her eyes widen when Destiny recounts some of the more audacious and absurd caper experiences. Utilizing the interview/flashback construction for the plot is another example of cookie-cutter crime story filmmaking and it’s not shot well here. Seeing Ramona’s plan put into action in the first half of the film is superior unravelling that inevitably follows.

This film is a view of the sex worker trade told through the eyes of women who don’t romanticize (think Pretty Woman) the trade. These ladies on the front lines are trying to make a living, make friends and navigate office politics just like in any job. In this case, office politics often means greasing the palms of greedy bouncers, DJ’s and bosses. Even though this film will command your attention, we don’t think Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez will become one of film history’s great buddy duos. 

Annapurna    1 hour 49 minutes      R

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