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Other Men's Money

Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer Lopez
STX Entertainment
 110 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByLorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is considered by many to be repugnant, poorly made trash, and by others, including me, to be an incredible B-movie guilty pleasure. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of the film, everyone agrees that, even though it dwells on the lives (and the bodies) of Las Vegas dancers, Showgirls is a testosterone-fueled piece of work. If, for some reason, anyone wondered what Showgirls would have looked like had it been told from the women’s point of view, wonder no further. Lorene Scafaria’s new film Hustlers is, in some respects, the distaff version of Showgirls, with a healthy dose of Widows thrown in. What’s not thrown in, unfortunately, is enough of the storytelling quality of Widows. 


Hustlers, which is based on a magazine article in the New Yorker, is the story of a group of strippers at a flashy New York City strip club catering to the Wall Street investment banker crowd. Night after night, at least in the early days of this century before the recession, these power brokers would show off by throwing hundreds of dollars around tipping the strippers or buying private dances that resulted in them getting about as much action as in a typical high schooler’s first date that only went as far as second base.


The unquestioned queen bee at Moves is Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who has mastered the arts of seductive gyrations on the stage and even more seductive come-ons when schmoozing up the customers. A new girl at the club, Dorothy (Constance Wu), lacks Ramona’s confidence and style and, as a result, brings home little in tips each night. Ramona soon takes Dorothy under her wing and, under the older dancer’s tutelage, Dorothy (under her new stage name, Destiny), soon starts raking in the big bucks as well.


That is until the great recession hits, and the Wall Street money dries up. Destiny and the other dancers are let go, replaced by actual hookers, and she struggles for several years in demeaning retail jobs. She also has a new daughter to take care of, as well as an elderly grandmother she had been supporting. Finally, in 2011, Destiny runs into Ramona and learns that the older dancer has successfully adapted to changing times. Instead of gyrating on stage or in private rooms, Ramona is a hooker of a different sort, picking up men in bars and talking them into going to the club, where she gets a hefty finders fee from the owners. And, if the mark isn’t ready to splurge just yet, a spiked drink or two usually gets Ramona access to a corporate credit card and a huge tab.


Destiny readily joins up with Ramona, although she has some misgivings about what they are doing. A couple of their fellow dancers from the club also join the crew, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart). Eventually, the women decide that they don’t need the club owners at all and, instead, take the marks to a nearby hotel room where they work their “magic” and make the marks’ money disappear. Of course, this happy state of affairs can’t last. No spoiler here, since several early shots in Hustlers show the women in prison garb being interviewed by a reporter (Julia Stiles).


Hustlers offers mainstream audiences a seldom seen, warts-and-all portrayal of life in the strip club. Although the women do the work, it’s a world dominated by men, starting with the club owners, who charge the women for the “privilege” of dancing and take a cut of their earnings. As a result, some of the girls make about what they would in a 9-to-5 job. Then, there are the customers who view their money as a means of domination, especially in the private rooms. There, for enough bucks, they can “direct” the women to debase themselves in various ways. Of course, there is an irony there that becomes apparent after a few minutes. Namely, these men could have easily hired escorts and gotten a lot more action for less money. But, as both dancers and customers realize, the action isn’t the big issue; it’s the power.


When Hustlers portrays the actual hustles, showing how the women eventually turned the tables on their customers, it has the fascinating appeal of many true-crime stories. Moreover, the audience sympathies are with the dancers from the start. The problem is that there’s simply not that much material. Watching one obnoxious drunk get rolled and robbed is pretty much the same as watching another. Director Scafaria realizes this and tries to disguise it by turning much of her film a series of stylishly-filmed video montages. So we get montages of the dancers in the club, montages of the dancers drinking with their marks (actually, as the movie shows, the marks do the drinking while the dancers discreetly dump their drinks to stay sober), and montages of the women reveling in the bling they buy for themselves.


The latter sequences are the most revealing and the most depressing in Hustlers. Scafaria makes the point that the women were severely exploited, so what do they do when they get money? They throw it around just as their customers did, only in their case, they usually spent it on luxurious high-fashion trinkets. And while that’s undoubtedly true, and telling, it interferes with the Scafaria’s attempt to develop them as characters. As a result, the supporting characters are caricatures—the black girl and the blonde, with the only distinction being that the blonde has a habit of throwing up when she gets nervous. And we see it over and over, as perhaps 90 minutes of material is stretched out to two hours.


Fortunately, when Scafaria does focus on her leads, especially Ramona, the movie is much livelier. Jennifer Lopez has her best film role ever in Hustlers, in a role in which she could have easily coasted on her cleavage. Instead, she turns Ramona into a 21st-century Fagin, guiding her younger proteges with a combination of the supportive mother hen and the hard-nosed boss. The rough edges show at times, when she comes off as ruthlessly cold-blooded (Ramona turns drugging and dumping men into a science, even when one winds up in the emergency room). Scafaria and Lopez take full advantage of the actress’ physical attributes here, as the latter is well aware of the effect that her body has on men. But it’s only a stepping stone into showing a complex character that is underwritten in the script but a powerhouse on screen.


Overall, Hustlers is somewhere in the middle of its plot inspirations. Technically, it’s slicky made and stylish, but, at some point, style triumphs over substance as it devolves into a series of set-piece montages. But the characters, except for Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona, never come to life like those in Widows. Instead, the movie often plays more like Revenge of the Showgirls. The film is undoubtedly entertaining to watch, for various reasons, but, in the end, audiences may feel like customers at a strip club, having spent their money on something that, in the end, is eye-pleasing but has very little substance.

In this featurette, Jennifer Lopez shows Constance Wu some moves.

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Hustlers (2019) on IMDb