“Hustlers”

 

            It's female empowerment in a tawdry context.  Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, a 2005 New York strip club dancer who understands that it's really not about sex, it's about power.  And the money is the measure.  She says “Everybody hustles.  You're either throwing the money or you're dancing.”

            Well, with that sunny view of the world, we watch Ramona as she pole-dances, being showered by dollar bills, as the new girl in the club, Destiny (Constance Wu) watches with undisguised fascination.  She wants some of this action, especially as she experiences having to tip the bartender, the manager, and even the bouncer out of her own tip money, leaving her with little to support her ailing grandmother, who raised her after her parents abandoned her.  (Yes, there's usually a hard-luck family story, but here we're not really concentrating on that.)  Ramona instructs Destiny in the stage dance moves (which doesn't take long), and advises her not to buy drinks from the house (let the clients buy drinks for you).  Ramona then portrays the “clients” as a bunch of predators:  Wall Street sharks who've gotten rich while gambling with other people's money (including police and firefighters pension funds).  They come to the club to blow off steam, but also to demonstrate their superiority by throwing their money at the girls, in exchange for a progression of personal performance, from erotic gyrating to individual “lap dances.”  Then there's the “VIP rooms,” supposedly private, where men are willing to part with even more money get a private viewing.  (Director Lorene Scafaria somehow manages to suggest all this with little actual nudity, but a lot of graceless innudendo.)

            Ramona figures that there's real money to be made by identifying the “marks” with big credit card limits.  (Hint:  don't look at the suit, look at the shoes.  And the watch.)  The married guys make better “marks” because they probably don't want their wives to know what they've been doing, and are also less likely to report anything to the police, because they don't want to suffer the embarrassment.  So Ramona and her “sisters” from the club put on their party girl act, pretending to get drunk along with the unsuspecting client, but actually throwing their shots over their shoulders instead.  Then, when he's good and drunk, get him to sign his credit card recepit, after running up a considerable tab, which the opportunistic girls then divide among themselves. 

            All this might elicit some viewer sympathy if the dancers then went home and supported their families, including their young children.  But instead, we see them spending lavishly on themselves, with designer clothes and jewelry and purses, and buying expensive presents for each other, all in the spirit of prosperous sisterhood.  (They're proud of being “hurricanes.”) But it all comes crashing down in the recession of 2008, when suddenly the Wall Street hotshots aren't so full of spending cash anymore.  Some of the girls even experience having to work a “real job” (usually in retail, at minimum wage).

            So Ramona and her new sisterhood (Destiny is worried about some of the new recruits, who are addicts and criminals) now take their con artistry one step further:  they drug their “marks,” ensuring that they'll get their hands on those credit cards, still counting on the men to keep a guilty and embarrassed silence about their being unwittingly fleeced.  Until a couple of guys do go to the police, which means the jig is up for our erstwhile sisterhood.  The “real life” counterparts serve only weekend house confinement and probation.  But then, as the movie points out, none of those Wall Street guys went to prison, either.

            The viewer feels fleeced afterwards, as well.  We just spent our time watching others dance while we threw money just to get in.  So who's the sucker?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association