For a film that features of a lot of rock-driven montages and chutzpah on steroids from many of the main characters, Hustlers, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, has a lot on its beautifully-articulated mind.
Set in the world of “glamourous” stripping – it’s all bright lights, shiny costumes and bigger-than-Ben-Hur production numbers but you don’t have to scratch far to see the squalor beneath the sass and sizzle – it presents the American Dream as a few haves thrown crumbs from their bounteously-overflowing tables at the have-nots.
That may sound damning, to consign all of these here United States of America, to the idea that it’s one great big strip club with most people scrabbling to get by, but as you lose yourself in the thoughtful bombast of Hustlers, you begin to see the weighted truth in that stinging observation.
We are led into the world of high-end, Wall Street-fuelled stripping by Destiny (Constance Wu), who newly arrived at flashy, blingy strip club Moves, is overwhelmed and in awe of the consummately together women who make a challenging job looks ridiculously easy.
It isn’t, of course, although as Destiny befriends and is then mentored by Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), learning all the moves and the tricks of the trade, you could be forgiven for thinking that here’s a way to make quick, clean money and take back some minute part of what the 1% have taken away.
If only it were that simple.
As Destiny discovers in a film that soars to some life-affirming heights before dropping back into the acrimonious gutter, appearances are far from being the full picture and while there might be promise in this life she has resorted to in a bid to look after her debt-ridden grannie (Wai Ching Ho), there’s an awful lot of disappointment, regret and loss thrown in too.
The truth of the darkness behind the glitz and glamour becomes all too apparent when the financial largesse of 2007 into 2008, given excessive life by Wall Street financiers with more money than good sense and the means with which to spend it, comes skidding to an abrupt halt in the calamitous mess of the Global Financial Crisis.
In an instant, or that’s how it feels anyway, Destiny’s newly-charmed existence dies immediately on the vine, leaving her and Ramona, and others in their team such as Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), back where they started, cut off from their one time very limited seat at the crowded table of the American Dream.
The solution, it seems, to Ramona at least who is far more able to wall herself off from the emotional consequences of her actions that Destiny, is to strike back at the very people who got them into this mess in the first place.
Thus is born a scheme where the four women – Destiny is brought in when she finds Ramona a few years after the GFC, down on her luck and struggling to support her daughter – fleece successful professional men of thousands of dollars in one night, skimming off their cards while their marks are doped up on ketamine and MDMA.
It’s highly-lucrative and for Destiny at least, ethically and morally challenged, but their choices are limited and so they dive on in, treating their activities like any business, reasoning that since they are striking old “friends” aka ex-clients with whom they formed some sort of bond, tenuous though it is, they are not really taking advantage of people who can’t afford it.
It’s a shallow as hell reasoning, and Destiny knows, fraught with all kinds of moral compromise that she does her best to ignore, but they have no other way to make money – Destiny’s attempts to get a standard job such as in retailing all come to nothing – and peace must be made with a business that threatens to doom them as much as it builds them up.
For a time they are invincible but then cracks appear, between the women themselves – they are shown one Christmas as so ridiculously happy and together that you know sadness and dissension is waiting just around the corner – and in their modus operandi which is eventually brought undone by two men, a duo of nice guys who can’t afford what’s done to them.
Giving that away is no big spoiler – it’s clear from the get-go that Hustlers is going to follow a reasonably straight-forward rags-to-riches-to-rags story.
What sets it apart, besides the universally-stellar performances by Lopez, Wu and cameos by the likes of Lizzo and Cardi B, is its willingness to take this framework and use for some fairly intense social commentary on the state of America.
Held together by an interview conducted of Destiny by journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) – the film is inspired by New York magazine’s 2015 article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler – which is interspersed with the events she is recalling, Hustlers shines a deeply uncomfortable lights on the shadows that lie behind the shiny facade of the much-hyped and celebrated American Dream.
Take away the hope that pervades the shining possibility of the Dream and the reality is that there is not much actual life or living to be had.
The promise is rarely matched the fulfillment which benefits a few at the top but not women like Ramona and Destiny who might briefly strike it rich before the dog-eat-dog underpinnings of American society drag them down again.
Hustlers works because it takes the time to let us get to know the women as real people struggling to get by and because it contrasts with frightening effectiveness the glossy brilliance of the facade with the brittleness and debasement of the substance behind.
It’s not a searing commentary of course but it is brutally effective, as well as wholly affecting, because what can often sound like an academic treatise on social inequality becomes confrontingly real, deeply person and very human when its shown through the focus of people like Destiny and Ramona who grasp the coattails of the American Dream only to find their loosened and lost, a plight many people in America deal with on a daily basis and which Hustlers brings to life in ways that will leave you thinking long after you’ve left the cinema.