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Hustlers is more than a salacious stripper heist movie

16 Sep 2019

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Have you ever wanted to stand up at the end of a film and clap? Even though the people who are responsible for the film aren’t in the room, and enthusiastic engagement in British cinemas is frowned upon unless you’re at Peckhamplex? Well, Hustlers will make you feel like that. 

The film, which was released over the weekend in the UK, hinges on the tale originally told by Jessica Pressler for Vulture of an underground Robin Hood-style racket run by New York strippers. Set against the backdrop of the financial crisis, it dives into their cunning plot to steal Wall Street bankers’ money to keep their community afloat and follows them as their methods grow messier and darker. What could easily have been a cheap response to a viral story, a sensationalised stripper heist film that leans on amazing cameos (Cardi B, Lizzo and her flute, and Usher to name a few), far-exceeded expectations. At the heart of Hustlers is Ramona the ringmaster, played by Jenifer Lopez in arguably one of the best performances of her entire career, and Destiny, played by Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians fame.

From the moment Destiny steps out into the cold and into Ramona’s decadent fur coat the two form a tempestuous bond that carries the film. What begins with Ramona showing Destiny the ropes – how to read people and glide up and down poles – leads to a seemingly endless cycle of scamming, shopping and eventually the drugging of their high-powered clients. As their cards are used to funnel money back into the club they become the new kingpins. As Ramona declares at the end, “We were fucking hurricanes, weren’t we?”

Here we get into the DNA of the film, to unpack all the things that make Hustlers the best movie of the year so far.

The casting makes it an instant modern classic

The stellar casting has to be mentioned in any review of the film. Getting not just Lizzo, but her flute, is one notable achievement, but J Lo’s appearance also marks the first time a Latinx actress over 45 has been given a lead role in the last 12 years. Alongside Constance, she’s joined by Cardi B, who basically plays herself and KeKe Palmer.

Then there’s the moment where the film really kicks up a notch. “Motherfucking Usher is here. Usher, bitch!” screams Lizzo and in he walks to his own song, ‘Love in this Club’. Usher’s love of strip clubs in the noughties is well-known. As a stripper wrote in a New York Post article from 2008: “Then someone like Usher would wander in with a huge entourage, and you’d start to feel like you were in some insane mobster movie, and all the bad things about the place would feel glamorous and cool, rather than as sordid and as seedy as they did the next morning when you woke up in bed with rolls of 20s.”

With all of this star quality and mirroring to real life, no wonder Hustlers made $33million this weekend, breaking box office records.

“Whoever put this film together has their finger on the pulse. I hate the word but – it’s a millennial dream”

It couldn’t be more zeitgeist

Whoever put this film together has their finger on the pulse. I hate the word but – it’s a millennial dream. Off the back of notorious scams like Fyre Festival, Caroline Calloway and Fraud Bae, young audiences have developed an almost insatiable appetite for scams and stories of scamming. If this wasn’t enough to hook viewers, the fact that most of this actually happened almost certainly will. It’s been proven that women have a particular addiction to the true crime genre. And, unlike Making a Murderer, Serial or Dirty John, this saga doesn’t hinge on violence towards women, it is the women who are in control. It’s the women who become threats toward rich, usually gross men. The film encapsulates discussions around gender politics, sex work and greed.

Mixed in throughout is a 00s aesthetic evident in Destiny’s fringe and platformed flip flops, the pops of velour and neon, and Ramona’s penchant for big fur. At one point you’ll even peep high heeled Timberlands. In fact, Ramona’s style is reminiscent of Jay Z’s lyrical gift list in the timeless track ‘03 Bonnie & Clyde’ feat. Beyoncé (“Manolo Blahnik Timbs, Aviator lens”). It lays bare fashion’s current Y2K obsession while making you wonder whether you would suit a retro pair of mega-platform stripper heels.

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star in HUSTLERS, courtesy of STX Entertainment

It showcases the power of women’s friendships and chosen families

This movie scores highly on the Bechdel test, which states that for a film to be a good representation of women there should be at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men. Hustlers is comprised of scene-after-scene of near-faceless men pining for the women, grabbing them and bankrolling their lives and families, yet they always feel secondary. The function of men in this film is not romance. Any heterosexual relationships included are fraught because they’re too jealous to see their girlfriends pole dance, toxic (due to incarceration and volatility), or short-lived. Men are merely a vehicle for these girls to achieve their dreams.

Women act as their own crutch throughout – frequently declaring their wish to be completely independent. Destiny finds a substitute mother in her fierce tutor Ramona. The stripper gang becomes a surrogate family unit that meets for Christmas to give each other designer goods with their dirty money. It’s touching to see a familial bond between a maligned group.

“It’s all foreshadowed with the words of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit Control: This is a story about control’”

This is an ethical conundrum around power and control

In the face of a collapsing economy fuelled by the greed of the same class of men that frequent the club, the women lose everything. Driving this film, and the con within it, is of course capitalism i.e. the evil force that is responsible for most of our downfall (see Brexit, wars, your own completely out of whack work/life balance). These women need a roof over their heads, a secure future for their children and family, and then in the end while maxing out corporate cards, they spend a lot of cash on garish designer goods. But, is this stealing or repayment? The way Ramona puts it: “The whole country is a strip club: you’ve got people throwing the money and you’ve got people doing the dance.”

Yes, giving these men a cocktail of MDMA and Ketamine without their explicit consent is appalling, but their scam exposes some real flaws in America’s social hierarchy. At every turn of this story, you learn more about how society is organised between the haves and the have nots. It zones in on the precarity of work among the working classes. You feel like a fly on the wall of a desperate plot that you can completely understand. It’s all foreshadowed with the words of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit. “This is a story about control,” she says in her sultry tones. This film is about a scramble to change your circumstances and as Ramona lets go of her money, one thing she still holds dear is her relationship with Destiny.