Strippers appear in lots of movies: there they are, dancing topless at Las Vegas clubs, doling out dead-eyed lap dances in backrooms. Unnamed and unnoticed, these characters are almost invariably relegated to the background, their motivations and personalities mysterious, and – within the context of the film – irrelevant. Crisp as a dollar bill, Lorene Scafaria’s comedy-drama Hustlers flips the script on this simplistic presentation.
Not only does she bring exotic dances to the fore, she also shows how these underestimated women (coded as cluelessly vulnerable due to their profession) take control of their own destiny, outsmarting their Wall Street clients in slick cons. Unlike recent women-led crime capers (among them Ocean’s Eight, Widows and The Kitchen), Hustlers does not concern itself with a group of gender-swapped heroines pulling off a heist, or mob wives finishing up a job. Based on a shocking true story, this is a quintessentially female narrative – and it’s all the better for it.
With promoters, bouncers and managers demanding cuts of her hard-earned cash, Dorothy (Constance Wu) is struggling to make a living on the pole until she meets the club’s star performer Ramona (a tough-talking, Oscar-worthy Jennifer Lopez). The women immediately form an alliance, inviting other dancers – a weak-stomached Lili Reinhart, a twerking Lizzo, a vibrator-wielding Cardi B – into their tight-knit circle where skills (how to perform when you’re menstruating) and tips are shared in bubbling dressing-room chatter.
Soundtracked by note-perfect Noughties needle drops, Rihanna, Britney and 50 Cent aplenty, the film’s opening scenes are a dizzyingly decadent blur of champagne, couture and Cadillacs, funded for by stockbrokers trading tens for titillation. As the 2008 financial crisis hits, and businessmen are forced to find alternative revenue streams to claw back their wealth, Ramona and co must also diversify their portfolio. Their get-rich-quick scheme? Spiking clients’ drinks and maxing out their credit cards.
Hustlers subverts expectations at every turn, challenging unconscious bias with its progressive feminism. A sequence of Dorothy and Ramona presumably embarking on ‘women’s work’ in the kitchen, tying up aprons and putting on oven gloves, is actually them cooking drugs. A close-up of Dorothy’s lipsticked mouth inches from a customer’s ear does not precede sweet nothings as we’d anticipate, but a sultry whisper for his bank details. Given the omnipresence of the stripper with a heart of gold on film, a clichéd trope that defangs female sexuality and renders it palatable, Hustlers’ depiction of morally ambiguous exotic dancers – who use their bodies as currency to feed a bottomless greed that rivals Gordon Gekko’s – is a welcome change of pace.
In addition to smashing stereotypes with its hyper-woke plot, the movie is shot from a resolutely female perspective. Case in point: Ramona’s introduction, a jaw-dropping, silver-tasseled pole performance, is not played solely for sex, despite zinging with sensuality. On the contrary, it is lensed to look like falling in love – the camera making a point to note Dorothy’s awestruck reactions at Ramona’s acrobatic spins and twists – while seamlessly replacing the romantic with the sororal.
Broad in scope, Hustlers is a dazzling dance between delight and despair that can be categorised in myriad ways. It is a wise commentary on the folly of the American Dream amid the harsh reality of recession. It is a deconstruction of the performative nature of femininity. It is a bitter indictment of scrounging minimum-wage employers. And yet, at its heart, the film is a paean to female friendship. It proves once and for all that strippers aren’t just set dressing, they’re the whole damn show.
‘Hustlers’ is released in cinemas on Friday, 13 September.
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