Hustlers Explores Seedy Side of Strip-Club Economics

Pop icon Jennifer Lopez is getting Oscar buzz for her lead-actor performance in Hustlers, a drama focused on the relationships and business surrounding the strip club scene before and after the financial crisis and collapse of Wall Street in 2008. The buzz is well-earned. Lopez turns in a top-flight performance in this well-scripted and complicated story of economic survival, grey ethical lines, loyalty, and betrayal.

The movie stays well within its R rating, and screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria keeps the story focused on the women at its center. Ramona (Lopez) is a veteran stripper who has figured out how to turn her pole-dancing performances into cash. The story, however, is told from the point of view of Dorothy, aka Destiny (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians), a struggling single mother who is desperate to pay her bills and support her elderly grandmother.

Dorothy reluctantly takes a job in New York City strip clubs, but can’t seem to generate enough tips despite being a triple threat: ambitious, beautiful, and Asian. Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her the tools of the trade and introducing her to her clients. Most importantly, Ramona teaches Dorothy how to distinguish between the clients that are unlikely to bring in money, those who are steady but not particularly wealthy, and the high-income earners willing to spend cash freely for a cheap sexual thrill. As you might expect, the high-rollers are the ones that are the cultural bottom feeders—entitled by their wealth and power, careless with their personal money, and loyal to themselves rather than their families. Everything crashes when the financial crisis upends Wall Street and decimates the bank accounts of the cash-spending CEOs, private bankers, and hedge-fund managers.

When Dorothy ends up pregnant, she tries to leave the business but is forced back to the strip club two years later in order to support her toddler and grandmother. Ramona and Dorothy concoct a scheme to swindle a new wave of even less ethical businessmen by stealing money through credit card fraud. When Ramona cuts off ties with their home club, their enterprise ends up taking on even riskier clients to keep the cash flowing into their bank accounts. While Destiny tries to keep the business in line the functional CFO of their business, she thinks Ramona might be sending it off the rails.

Hustlers is a layered and nuanced film. While some in the audience might be tempted to dismiss the movie as another installment of “woke” Hollywood, the story and the movie are much more than this. Unquestionably, the movie is telling the story from the point of view of the women. But the characters are drawn with the multidimensional characteristics—fear, ambition, success, courage, guilt, shame, excess, cunning, and fallibility. These characteristics flow into the relationships among themselves as well as the men in their lives. Even the boorish behavior of the men they target is placed in a context of the lives and ambitions the women at the center of the story.

Screenwriter Scarafaria does not romanticize the strip-club industry despite staying well within its R rating. Rather the clubs, and the women who work in them, are shown as everyday people who are trying to make a living at one of the few jobs available to them. The exploitative nature of the clubs is not drawn so harshly as to demonize the men who run them. Not surprisingly, the ethics of the business, and the rationalizations used to perpetuate it, run parallel to the ascent and fall of the principal characters.

Hustlers is a drama loosely based on the article “The Hustlers of Scores” by journalist Jessica Pressler, an editor with New York magazine. The core of the story is a sophisticated character study that will leave many in the audience pondering the meaning of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and ethics. Some might be less than satisfied with the ending, but this effect is probably intentional on the part of writer-director Scarafaria.

Scarafaria is walking a grey line with the plot and her characters. Well-executed, the story is sufficiently meaty that the actors have the juice they need to turn in excellent performances. Combined with the top-flight performances of Lopez, Wu, and several among its supporting cast—including fellow strip-club workers played by veteran actress Mercedes Ruehl, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, rapper Cardi BHustlers may well see nominations in the categories of Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress, when major awards season comes around in 2020. These nominations will be earned, not a by-product of a “woke” Hollywood.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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