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Hustlers hustles a true story

Hustlers shines light on underrepresented groups and the realities of stripping with a few faults.
Photo courtesy of IMPA Awards

The trailers for Hustlers present a fun heist film, similar to Ocean’s Eleven, with a vague target described as “Wall Street” and no suggestion of real victims.

The subject matter of Hustlers is, in actuality, much harder to stomach.

A group of former strippers, including Dorothy (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), figure out they can make more money without taking their clothes off by acting as “promoters” for the strip club. Essentially, what they do is find wealthy men at bars and, by pretending to be interested in them, convince them to go to the strip club and spend thousands of dollars.

So far, mostly harmless. However, Ramona soon gets frustrated, realizing these wealthy men often are difficult to reel in. Some of them are inherently suspicious of a group of younger, attractive women wanting to hang out all night. Some of them enjoy the women’s company but aren’t interested in hanging out at a strip club.

To make the process more efficient, Ramona proposes drugging their targets with a mixture of MDMA and ketamine, which will make them compliant and forget everything the next day. Ramona repeatedly insists these men would have wanted to do drugs and spend thousands of dollars at the club anyway, though that explanation doesn’t hold up when the whole reason she decided to start spiking drinks was because they were having trouble finding enough targets.

It’s jarring seeing Ramona, Dorothy, and their friends repeatedly dancing gleefully around men who are too drugged to string a sentence together, passed out, or, occasionally, knocked unconscious and bleeding.

The film’s main problem is, rather than embracing the darkness of the subject content, it goes out of its way to make the audience feel sympathy for Ramona and crew rather than letting the audience draw their own conclusions. The film half-heartedly attempts to paint the women’s actions as revenge for the 2008 financial crisis, as Ramona tells the other women “These Wall Street guys—you see what they did to this country?” Though, notably, not only do some of their targets not even work on Wall Street, but a few of them end up not having as much money as the women think they do.

The film also seems determined to make the audience like Ramona when there are plenty of reasons to dislike her. She’s repeatedly described, including by the film’s de facto narrator, Jennifer (Julia Stiles), as a good friend while ignoring her displays of shocking cruelty, including a scene in which Ramona describes a sobbing Dorothy as an “ungrateful bitch.” The film would be better served by just embracing the fact that Ramona is probably a sociopath.

Despite its tonal inconsistencies, the film works best when it depicts the realities of stripping—from dealing with creepy clients, trying to manage having an unstable source of income, and facing judgement from others, especially in the job market.

It’s also great to see a film that is anchored by women of color, from Wu and Lopez to more minor characters, like Keke Palmer as Mercedes. Ultimately, Hollywood needs to tell more stories like this about underrepresented groups, even if the execution isn’t perfect.

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