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Hustlers

Year: 2019
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Lorene Scafaria/Jessica Pressler
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Cardi B, Lizzo

What a roiling slurry of contradictory morals this movie is – even without the central premise of strippers drugging customers to make them less concerned with how much money they're spending.

The story – if you don't know about what a splash it made on the festival circuit – is the real life tale of a group of strippers who lose their livelihood after the 2008 financial crash sends their clientele running for the hills, and whose erstwhile leader concocts a scheme to drug customers when they come in, loosening their inhibitions so they spend money freely or robbing them outright.

We're introduced to the world through Destiny (Constance Wu), a young Asian American woman who takes care of her elderly grandmother as best she can without telling the old lady she strips for a living. When she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) in action Destiny is in awe at her moves and the rain of bills she elicits from the adoring men in the crowd.

After the pair meet to smoke on the roof of the Manhattan club and become friends, Ramona agrees to teach Destiny everything she knows. Soon they're inseparable, living the high life of nice clothes, fancy cars, sumptuous Christmases in beautiful apartments and giving their kids the best of everything.

But the crash hits, their industry craters and they go their own ways. Unable to find other work, Destiny soon goes back to the club and reconnects with Ramona, who has a new scheme to keep them all in cars and jewels. They'll drug men who come in to the club with a special compound that makes them not only willing to open their wallets but forget about it in the morning, figuring no man is going to press charges and admit he was robbed while drugged in a strip club.

Destiny is dubious but goes along with it... until she doesn't, finally deciding what they're doing is wrong and precipitating the end of the whole thing – especially when the girls find fraud investigators on their tails. That's the plot. Now, how to unpack the knotted gender politics...

First of all it reminds you of the argument in contemporary feminism that swirled up when pole dancing classes for suburban mothers became popular – if it makes you feel physically strong and sexually powerful can it still be empowering when the practice itself was born out of something designed to objectify women for the gaze of men?

Can they ever be feminist considering they've made a living by subscribing to the male objectification fantasy? Is it girl power despite them taking their clothes off, or does them fooling idiot men into thinking they're taking their clothes off when all they're really doing is stealing their money make it about girl power?

Is it a nose-thumb at the one percent, getting back at the system that stole all our money by stealing the money of random strangers, many of whom don't deserve it any more than the girls deserved to lose their livelihood after the crash? We're asked to sympathise with them stealing money because their former customers – the men who precipitated the crash – stole money too, a thin justification if ever there was one.

It also subscribes to a lot of American narrative conventions, many of which are deeply rooted in a conservative, Protestant viewpoint. They take their clothes off and dance for men not because it's good money or they enjoy it or they just decided to do it for a living. They do it because they have kids and will do anything to take care of them, which makes strippers acceptable.

In fact, the movie treats the economic practise of transacting sex or sexuality for money itself with confusion. There's a scene where Destiny, so desperate for money after she's come back to the club that's now a shadow of its former self, relents and agrees to give some bozo a handjob for $300, her voiceover telling us that when he stood up and left, she discovered he actually tricked her and only left her $60. She obviously feels guilty and filthy for stooping so low, but what does the amount of money have to do with it? If it had been $300 would that have been okay? Three dollars? Three million?

There are also the requisite scenes of them enjoying easy money so (again, according to American movie politics) they must be bought low and lose it all, because if there's one thing Western audiences can't stand, it's rich people who don't ultimately lose their money as penance for the rest of us not being rich ourselves.

There's also the dodgy characterisation of Destiny herself, who we see in bookends scene being interviewed by a New York Magazine reporter (Julia Stiles) who'd go on to write the story that formed the basis for the movie. Now called Dorothy, the former stripper is very well dressed and presented, but kind of a bitch to the poor woman just trying to do her job, and it's only the last in a long line of morally dubious behaviour – and I don't mean being a stripper.

She has initial reservations about Ramona's plan but enjoys the income from it all the same, only seeming to decide what she's doing is wrong when there's a chance of the gang getting caught thanks to the flaky associates Ramona keeps bringing in. She's only too happy to throw her former friends under the bus when the crunch comes and goes on to treat the reporter she's apparently agreed to speak to (bristling at one question and snappily asking if 'this is all going in the article') like another enemy. I found it very hard to muster any sympathy or empathy for her.

But director Lorne Scafaria manages one impressive feat you don't immediately notice. Though there's lots of flesh and sexy lingerie on display and quite liberal harsh language, it's kind of prudish about full frontal nudity and sex. I remember only seeing one or two naked pairs of breasts and neither of them were those of the stars. In a movie with so many scenes set in strip clubs and dressing rooms, that's good production design and scene choreography.

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