“Hustlers” is a movie written and directed by a woman, based on an article by a woman about crimes committed by women and starring and co-produced by women and yet it seems like faux feminism, excused by a one-sided morality. Jennifer Lopez is glamorously self-assured and the movie has the sizzle of a well-done music video, but over the 109-minute run time, the shallowness of the script becomes readily apparent. The glossy rationalizations are sullied when one has time to think about the dirt and grime of reality.
Dressed in a sophisticated white ensemble with bling stud earrings, Constance Wu plays Dorothy as she remembers her time doing crime in an interview with journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). As a newbie on the strip club scene, Dorothy is guided by the mother hen Ramona Vega (Lopez) into pole dancing moves as well as ways of making money by assessing each man’s status in Wall Street firms and their variable carnal desperation. Dorothy, now renamed Destiny, teams with Ramona to work the no-camera champagne rooms where the high spenders ask for sexual favors but from this two-some have to settle for a lesbian erotic show.
Destiny declares, ” I don’t want to be dependent on anybody. I just want to take care of my grandma, maybe go shopping every once in a while.” That works until the financial crisis bursts and the free-spending Wall Street big fish are swept away. When the party’s over, Ramona and Destiny’s part ways.
A few years later, dumped by her boyfriend (who we only see glimpses of) and with a two-year-old daughter in tow, Destiny finds herself back at the club but now men expect actual sexual favors for money. Gorgeous Russian dancers are charging $300 for a champagne room blow job.
Ramona is still working the champagne rooms, but with new gimmick. She’s running through her old customers on her “Get Money” list, but now she drugs them and maxes out their corporate cards, receiving a percentage from the club. As the business grows, Destiny joins her and they soon recruit two other women, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart).
Ramona justifies things saying, “The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.” As the old clients begin to grow wise to what’s happening, this crew of sisters is forced to take on unpredictable new clients. They started providing their services at homes and hotels after picking up guys at bars.
Director Lorene Scarfaria gives us glitz in her flattering shots of half-naked and fully naked women–backstage and center stage at a pole-dancing joint. The crotch shots are artistic, not crass. Her script makes sure to justify each of the main characters desperate need for funds. Destiny first needs money to save her grandmother’s house and later to support both her grandmother and her daughter. Ramona also has a daughter. Mercedes has an incarcerated boyfriend. Annabelle has been thrown out by her family because of her strip club dancing.
In reality, Destiny is Cambodian-American Roselyn Keo and Ramona is Samantha Barbash who went by Samantha Foxx. Keo was working at a diner when a man looked at her face and figure and told her she could be making more money elsewhere. Keo told Pressler her diner job was to “supplement her grandparents’ meager income” at age 17 when she dropped out of high school, yet that story seems to have changed by the time Hunter Harris interviewed her for Vulture. In that article, Keo’s grandmother died when she was 16. From there, Keo was on her own (no mention of her younger brother). Pressler couldn’t confirm Keo’s story about her family, “because her family did not respond to interview requests, and because Rosie is an admitted liar.”
None of the core four want to cross the line into prostitution–they hired other women to do that. Then there was the split. “According to Keo, she and Barbash got the largest cut, with the minor players getting increasingly minor sums. It’s unclear how much the clubs profited.”
In some ways, the business frustrations Keo details in the original article almost justify the stiff cuts everyone else gets at the clubs: the dancers who gave $300 blow jobs lacked enthusiasm, Craigslist hires didn’t show up, sometimes the other half of the foursome didn’t show up and there were junkies and criminals among their hires. Keo claimed that “Samantha had a soft spot for ex-strippers with problems” and this frustrated Keo because “When I’m doing business with somebody, I want stand-up people, not junkies and criminals.” Rosie wanted, “People that have morals and principles.” Yet remember, Samantha and in the movie, Ramona, also took in Destiny/Keo.
The original article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Score,” in The Cut and the New York magazine is presented as “Here’s a modern Robin Hood story for you: a few strippers who stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves.” To a certain extent, the movie attempts to portray them Robin Hoods. Ramona tells her co-horts that these big-spenders of Wall Street have effectively “stolen money from the firefighters retirement fund.” The women are supposedly fighting an unjust system, but the only poor they are giving to are themselves.
Part of the reason these women were able to get away with this was the policy of the NYPD. According to Pressler’s article: “If the guy at the precinct who answered the phone had a dollar for every time he’d heard a caller say he’d been drugged and his credit card run up at a strip club, he’d be retired already. Over the years, the New York City Police Department has received countless versions of those calls, and their unofficial position has always been that the callers are full of shit. So when this particular caller said he had evidence, they were skeptical.”
The police later recognized the pattern when the tabloids picked up a story about a doctor with a $135,000 bill. The cardiologist who helped bring the women down thought he was dating the young woman he met at a Park Avenue restaurant. She told him she was a nursing student, and only four “dates” later when he got the bill, did he realize he’d been a con job and not a romantic keeper.
Although the police found few men willing to testify, they did find four. One man had lost his home to a hurricane and was divorcing due to the strain of an autistic son when he fell prey to these women. His company investigated his maxed out company credit card and he was fired. When his next job found out about his credit history, they fired him. This is the known collateral damage.
If the first few minutes of the film points out the inequity of the stripper employment system where the strippers and hostesses pocket a small percentage of the profits, that’s mirrored in this gang of four “sisters” profiteering off of prostitutes. Just claiming girl power doesn’t excuse women exploiting other women or make it better than men doing the same. While Destiny complains about the unreliable losers that Ramona takes under the wings of her fur coat, one wonders about the fatal flaws this sisterhood of four have to bring them there. The character Mercedes with a man going to jail? Need to know more on that one to decide if he’s worth the wait, but the script glides past this without a minute to make a moral judgment. Similarly, Annabelle’s decision to strip and her family relationships are taken on her word. Has she no other skills?
What about Destiny and that barely seen boyfriend? What about the father of Ramona’s daughter? And what about all those generous men along the way, the ones on the “Get Money” lists? What kind of desperate damsel in distress stories did Destiny and Ramona weave to get that cash. Kindness from men is rewarded by crass, self-serving greed.
The sound track certainly rocks and having Usher appear as himself certainly adds to the meta theatrics as does Cardi B. Yet this is a sexy fairytale. Lopez never looks down and desperate. She’s always made up with perfect mascara on her false eyelashes and her mane is well maintained. She’s never far from her stage J.Lo stage persona. Wu comes off less well-coiffed with her bangs weirdly chopped for a bad-wig look in the flashback scenes.
Some have compared this film to “The GoodFellas,” but that adaptation of the rise and fall of Henry Hill in the mob didn’t feature so much skin. Ray Liotta as Hill at times looks dazed and even depressed when the bad times take over. The movie also exposes Hill’s fatal flaw that would eventually lead to him being kicked out of the Witness Protection Plan although the film ends before that happens.
With Demi Moore choosing to pose nude again at 56 for Harper’s Bazaar (Remember her Vanity Fair covers in 1991 and 1992), it’s hard not to think of her 1996 “Striptease” when she was 34 or the more recent 2010 “Burlesque” with Cher at 64. Moore and Cher, both women who traded in on their willingness to show skin, seemed to have something to prove as they reached a certain age. Is J.Lo at 50 reasserting her sexual attractiveness in this film that didn’t really require pole dancing?
According to an EOnline.com article, the two actual leaders of this girl gang, Samantha Barbash and Roselyn Keo were not strippers. They were hustlers/hostesses working at the New York City Hustler Club when they met. One could speculate the pole dancing (which has been used effectively in some special pre-release screenings) is a marketing tool to sex up the movie in a way that is acceptable. After all, there are quite a few pole dancing classes and they supposedly liberate women, empowering them with physical skills and sexual awareness. Still, the first article portrays them as strippers or ex-strippers (although not necessarily pole dancers).
Yet empowerment shouldn’t mean devoid of a moral compass and although Keo and her film stand-in Destiny opine that they need to work with people who have morals and principles, they were drugging people to steal money. Destiny and Keo may now conclude that “hurt people hurt people,” but that insight doesn’t excuse their lack of morality. Female empowerment and feminism aren’t about women treating men badly, but by definition it is about people seeking equal and equitable treatment for women. If men were drugging other men, would this be empowering? If men were drugging women, would we celebrate?
Thinking that a man’s confession of love makes a man a chump because it brings dollar signs to one’s eyes is sad. Keo reasons, “Don’t tell me you love me. That means I know I can milk you for everything, and then some.” Love becomes a commodity to be exploited. That is just gold digger mentality and in a woman toward a man, misandry. Misandry is no more attractive than misogyny and might the movie suggests the two are part of a vicious cycle, fueling each other.
“Hustlers” might be inspiring for those hitting their fifties and there’s a mild hurrah for the inclusion of a plus-size woman as a stripper (if one wants to consider that as plus-size representational progress), but the film is not really fueled by feminism and empowerment. In a dog-eat-dog world, “Hustlers” is the glossy version of bitches breaking bad, more credible than the whore with a heart of gold fairytale and a cautionary tale for men with money.
Full disclosure: Inspired by a tale of tainted tits (Mexico City prostitutes in 2005), I wrote a short story, “Gauguin Girl,” which was published in the Asian American Literary Review (Spring 2012).