Husters isn’t going to change the world, but it is a product of a changing world, in all the best ways. Never before has there been a movie about strippers that treats those women with such respect, or given them this much agency, or certainly afforded them this many dimensions. In the end this is a story about otherwise good people getting sucked into doing very bad things, and those things don’t particularly have anything to do with them being strippers. The stripper part is incidental, and just happens to have also been the case with the real life women whose story this film was inspired by.
It can’t be overstated how significant this is, a total lack of shame when it comes to stripping as a profession, and that is meant in the best sense. Not one character in this film berates or belittles any of these women for what they do for a living. This is a profession about which these women have a great deal of pride, and rightfully so, as they have the skill to match. Ditto all the women who play them. Jennifer Lopez gets an entrance, an actor who is fifty years old playing presumably slightly younger, in which she does a pole dance. The whole sequence is spectacular, incredibly well shot, and a jaw dropping performance by Lopez.
Lopez’s character, Romana, is raising a daughter. The father is evidently out of the picture, and we never learn anything about him. We don’t need to. This isn’t his story. The central character, Destiny (Constance Wu, holding her own), also has a child, and that baby’s father gets a bit of screen time, until Destiny is single again. Destiny takes care of her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), and although it is never made explicitly clear that Grandma knows how Destiny makes her living, neither does it seem to be a secret. There is one scene in which Destiny has left stripping for a while to raise her little girl, and when she’s in an interview discussing her resume, I really expected this to be the predictable moment when some other character — also a woman — looks down her nose at her. Granted, Destiny says twice that what she did at these establishments was “Bar tending, mostly,” but it’s still clear what kind of places they are. But the issue that holds Destiny back is not judgment but something a lot more boring: a lack of retail experience.
And for the record, if there is any one thing that Hustlers is not, it’s not boring. These are empowered women in an ensemble cast telling a seamless story that has no need to point out or underscore how empowered they are. “Show don’t tell,” as they say, and writer-director Lorene Scafaria has it down. We even get delightful bit parts by the likes of Cardi B. and Lizzo among the strippers, and a maternal figure among club staff (they literally all call her “Mom”) played by Mercedes Ruehl. These are all confident women who know who they are and are great at what they do.
If anything is a little bit disappointing, it is the muted use of the great Julia Stiles, her third billing a surprise given how small her part is, as the journalist interviewing Destiny as Destiny tells their story. Sure, her part is essential and it may simply be that Stiles wanted to be part of a movie this great, but she still deserves better. She gets no scenery to chew.
That is left mostly to Jennifer Lopez, and it must be said: the buzz is justified, as is the talk of an Oscar nomination. Scafaria has crafted a film, in fact, worthy of nominations in several categories, particularly — and this is an unusual thing for me to notice — sound editing. Those sorts of nominations tend to go to flashier films with lots of explosions, but effectively subtle work can be just as important.
And Lopez pulls off a neat trick here, being a character who is anything but subtle, but giving a fairly restrained performance, all things considered. Ramona is basically the ring leader of a group of criminals, who spent several years effectively roofie-ing filthy rich Wall Street guys and then robbing them blind. This is their story, and it’s a lot more nuanced than it would be in many other hands, particularly those of a lot of male directors. It’s notable that Hustlers is infused with sexuality yet has not one actual sex scene, and while it’s wall to wall with female sexiness, there isn’t much female nudity either. The most gratuitous nude scene involves a man given too much of their amateur blend of drugs and has to be rushed to a hospital. It’s not especially sexy. Parts of it, in fact, are funny, as is the case with the movie overall.
And Stiles, as the reporter, kind of serves as an expected audience stand-in when she assures Destiny in the middle of their interview, “I don’t feel sorry for these guys.” Destiny replies immediately, “I do feel sorry for them,” and understanding why is Lorene Scafaria’s achievement. This is a group of women impossible to see as villains, even as though do objectively villainous things. Just because Wall Street players got away with vast financial crimes in the wake of (and which largely caused) the Great Recession of the late 2000s doesn’t mean these women should get away with something like this. Destiny’s guilt about it is appropriate, as is her guilt about how things went down in the end between her and Ramona, who offered her a kind of sincere support she never found anywhere else.
None of this is simple, except perhaps for a few of Scafaria’s plot contrivances. But even those contrivances make for a better movie — this is not a documentary, after all. You won’t leave Hustlers feeling like you witnessed perfection, but you will feel you witnessed something different and great, the best version of what it can be.