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Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

“Doesn’t money make you horny?” seasoned veteran exotic dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) purrs to tentative new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) upon their first meeting on the floor of a Manhattan strip club. Destiny (and the audience) has just watched Ramona make a stunning entrance, bringing the house down with a pole-dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (foreshadowing!) in front of a light-wall of violet bulbs that leaves the strip-club stage strewn with paper cash. It’s an indelible introduction to the core themes and ideas of Hustlers. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s swaggeringly entertaining and doggedly substantial crime dramedy about a cadre of strippers who drug and swindle a succession of Wall Street bankers and traders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars is a movie about the fundamental intersection of capital and sex, the tessellating forces of greed and lust, and the purely amoral transactional nature of American capitalism. It’s about a society and economy where money makes people horny, and the consequences of a cutthroat competition for the seemingly arbitrary expanding and contracting pool of that money – the eternally necessary hustle – being driven on a primal level by those animal urges.

And here you thought from the trailers that it was a just cock-tease heist movie full of sexy strippers! It’s not not that, but it’s also something even sexier: a trenchant social critique. Pull out your cash clips and get ready to toss those bills, gentlemen, because we’re going to talk about exchange value!

Destiny is not entirely fresh to the exotic dancing realm when she meets Ramona in 2007, but she is a newcomer at the club in question, New York City’s Moves, and isn’t sure how to fit in with the girls and pitch her wares to its high-powered Wall Street clientele. Ramona becomes her mentor and best friend, a pragmatic fount of penetrating advice and insightful street-level philosophy on how to maximize her earning potential in this snakepit of desire and wealth (“Are you an investor in this place?” she chides Destiny when she buys a drink at the club’s bar. “Let the guys get fucked up.”). Destiny is soon raking in the cash with Ramona’s guidance (despite the cuts of her profits owed to various male figures in the club hierarchy), spending lavishly and bonding with the sorority of dancers at Moves, including Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and more minor characters like Liz and Diamond (cameos from pop stars Lizzo and Cardi B, respectively, the latter having actually worked as a stripper in her pre-fame days). Destiny (her real name is Dorothy, like The Wizard of Oz heroine adventuring in a strange world of fantasy and artifice) very much needs the money, as she lives with and supports her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), having been abandoned as a child by her immigrant mother (leading to a central sense of emotional insecurity), and soon enough has a daughter of her own (Ramona is also a single mother, a deciding factor in their bond), although the ne’er-do-well father is soon out of their lives.

The apex of the times of plenty at Moves is a sequence featuring another pop star cameo, R&B star (and Lopez’s fellow one-time network-TV talent show judge) Usher, whose appearance sparks a joyful explosion of spontaneous release, all of the club’s women dancing for him on the stage in indulgent slow-motion. The good times do not last, however, as the 2007-2008 financial crisis hits and greatly reduces the gusher of easy money spurting from the once-deep pockets of Wall Street’s investment vultures (interstitial news reports from the time bemoan the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a bit too real to watch now that we’re facing an even worse one barely more than a decade later). Destiny and Ramona each leave off stripping and fall out of touch as they struggle to support themselves in more straight-edged and respectable sectors of the contracted economy: Destiny ineffectually pretends that her dancing was actually bartending in an interview for a high-end retail job, while Ramona is frustrated by a clueless male manager who won’t let her off earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

Returning very reluctantly to a greatly changed Moves full of Russian immigrants willing to race each other to the bottom for paid sexual favours to customers, a discouraged Destiny crosses paths with Ramona again and becomes inculcated in the aforementioned drug-and-swindle scheme alongside Annabelle and Mercedes, slipping a mix of ketamine and MDMA (one of the movie’s funniest scenes shows them tweaking the formula and waking up on the kitchen floor after a taste-test) into the drinks of unsuspecting and horny businessmen and traders and then surreptitiously running up the men’s credit cards while partying at the club. Expanding their hustle and their network of collaborators along with their profits, Destiny and Ramona become the matriarchs of a loose family of women bonded by the exploitation of their exploiters (more on that in a moment), at least until their criminality inevitably brings the unavoidable personal and legal consequences.

Scafaria frames Destiny’s narrative through intercut scenes of her retrospective interview in 2014 with reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), ostensibly for a fictional version of the 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler upon which the movie is based and which gets at the ambiguous and hypocritical meanings of the story with more thoughtfulness than Hustlers affords. This movie is a lean and cleverly ferocious animal, predating with relish on slow and fat themes concerning wealth, sex, gender power inequalities, and criminal enterprise as capitalist acquisition simply by other means, no more or less moral despite being very much less legal. Without question, it is deeply indebted to the style and thematic content of the Mafia films of Martin Scorsese; his fellow Italian-American Scafaria pays homage with the first shot of the film, an immersive one-shot long take following Destiny and the rest of the dancers from their dressing room down service hallways and across the neon-lit floor of the club that echoes numerous Scorsese oners, most notably and immediately obvious the Copacabana long take from Goodfellas.

Hustlers also references and recontextualizes the construction of Scorsese’s mob movies via gender inversion. The film depicts female-dominated spaces in which men serve either as sources of capital or leeches of their own hard-won capital, the reverse of the smotheringly homosocial world of Scorsese’s male criminals, with their patriarchal pursuit of capital and status interrupted by occasional demanding female anchors in the form of wives and daughters and mistresses. It’s not feminist, exactly, as all of the stripper characters are too hopelessly immersed in the tumult of mutual capitalist exploitation to care a whit for liberation, solidarity, or gender equality. Scafaria revels in scenes of female togetherness and bonding like a joyful Christmas sequence at the height of success of their drug-and-pump scheme, but this is not an entirely unified realm of uplifting sisterhood; Ramona and Destiny fall out a few times, and furthermore the interactions between Destiny and Elizabeth display cleavages of class and education that drive distrust and conflict, as does the late-film split over Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a reckless junkie recruited to join their schemes by a protective Ramona but perceptively viewed as a liability by Destiny (leading to one of the script’s bluntest but funniest zingers: “We’re breaking the law here. We don’t wanna work with criminals.”)

But Scafaria also finds it inherently romantic that sexualized female labourers subject to the most blatant male gaze brazenly swindled the swindlers, and Hustlers echoes some of the criticism of the avaricious perfidy of financial elites delved into more deeply and procedurally by a film like The Big Short (also produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), albeit in a limited and targeted fashion reflective of media traditions of neutralization of radical political ideas, known as recuperation. Lopez (as much a creature of capitalist processes as any other enormously famous person, tonally spurrious claims to working-class authenticity notwithstanding) megaphones a few lines as Ramona criticizing Wall Street’s exploitation of Main Street and the lack of consequences for this exploitation, although Lopez’s performance (which is very good in a pure-movie-star way and, although hardly great, no less Oscar-worthy than, say, Brad Pitt operating in the same mode in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is nuanced and perceptive enough to register that this is less principled political grandstanding than self-serving moral justification for her actions. Scafaria is careful to include one male client who is milked for thousands and confronts Destiny with the real pain and difficulties for himself and those close to him caused by being robbed. This is not a victimless crime, whatever Ramona tells herself and her compatriots.

One of Ramona’s macro-truisms resonates much more deeply, and serves as the thesis statement of Hustlers. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” she opines. “You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” These words cut deep down to the transactional performativity of capitalist exchange value in America, and the seedy symbiosis of greed and lust that underlies it. Hustlers is doubtful about the purity of feminist solidarity and recognizes the superficial influences of socialist and anti-capitalist ideation in the national polity, but it’s one of the most perceptive and viscerally effective recent films in terms of the depiction of the wages of capitalist competition, especially when contrasting boom times and recessions. When the economy contracts, the ability of strippers like Destiny and Ramona to earn a robust income through skilled exhibition of their sexualized bodies while maintaining some measure of bodily autonomy contracts with it. Throttled flow of wealth sparks increases labour competition from abroad (ie. the Russian women at Moves), whose entrance into the labour pool drives down wages (by capitalist design, of course) while escalating the compromises required of labour to earn a living income (ie. $300 blowjobs).

The dancers’ fraud and theft is driven by these straitened circumstances; crime stems from economic desperation. But like the wider crime film genre and the mobster movies defined by Martin Scorsese’s work above all, Hustlers argues, or at least posits aloud, that there isn’t a meaningful moral distinction between the theft and fraud that Destiny, Ramona, and their collaborators engage in and the theft and fraud perpetrated on millions of Americans by Wall Street investment banks, nor is there a difference between the hedonistic spending habits on both sides of this particular coin either. There is a distinction of degree and amount, certainly, to the great advantage of the elite. Capitalism is the common denominator, and in the contemporary American economy, everyone has a hand in each other’s pockets (or under each other’s g-strings, as the case may be). It’s a competition at all times, and the winner is the one whose hand emerges from the other’s pocket with a greater share of the booty (pun very much intended). In the world of Hustlers, money is the ultimate turn-on, whether you’re tossing it or dancing for it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews