“Hustlers” is stimulating, but for reasons that have little to do with stripping. It’s a class commentary at heart, and a surprisingly neutral one by Hollywood standards. Although Jennifer Lopez—beautiful as ever, impossibly ageless—doesn’t exactly hamper the film’s aesthetics either.
That’s a good place to begin. Director Lorene Scafaria captures her strippers in a rare light, more as beautiful women than sexual objects. Club scenery is inevitable and ever-present, but its denizens are somehow less tawdry, less crass through her lens.
This was the first sign “Hustlers” might buck expectations. Rather than an outright celebration of the industry, grafting elite feminist attitudes onto working-class women, it’s realistically complicated. The film does not glaringly promote strip clubs as a vision of Paglian empowerment, although its pre-recession phase could maybe be read that way. (You certainly see the weaknesses of their patrons.) It also does not spin the women’s depraved scheme to drug men into oblivion and empty their bank accounts as a justified act of feminist revenge.
It doesn’t even endorse the Robin Hood dynamics at play, championing the hustlers over their lustful Wall Street prey, finding virtue in exploiting the men who exploit women. Indeed, the film is rightfully judgmental about all the hustling, which involves ketamine and some deeply flawed moral logic.
That may be more of a statement on how low the bar for honest social commentary has fallen in Hollywood than a real compliment. But even considering some (if not much) of the film’s merit is rooted in its willingness to clear that low bar, “Hustlers” examines a true story and its fictionalized plot-drivers with a nuance that entertains and provokes.
Charting a New York magazine writer’s very real attempt to report on the women’s case, an awareness of class dynamics makes the film both more compelling and more fair. At one point, Constance Wu’s character, a single-mother stripper who gets roped into Lopez’s moneymaking plot, drills the reporter on her privileged upbringing, making a useful point about the gulf between the media and its working-class subjects. Family is a recurring motivator for the women as well.
Mercifully scant on heavy-handed moralizing, “Hustlers” relies on strong performances, smart writing, and some stunning visuals. (Although things gets a little gimmicky towards the end.) It all culminates in two hours that invite you to consider greed as a fire that spreads across class boundaries, the moral rot that so easily accompanies wealth, and the ethics of a polarizing industry. There’s no driving message or agenda, but these days that hardly seems like a flaw.
Both Wu’s character and the real woman upon which she’s based poignantly utter the adage “hurt people hurt people” near the end of the film and article respectively, seeking to explain the motivations for their bad behavior. It’s an easily dismissed cliche, but in the context of “Hustlers,” functions as a memorable statement about the women on the poles, about their circumstances, and their desperation. It’s far from the ringing endorsement of strip clubs you might expect.
“Hustlers” doesn’t expose women to arouse so much as to tell their story. By avoiding the fourth-wave moral gymnastics required to flatly endorse stripping, the film’s female leads come across as smart and strong, but also just as capable of sin as their Wall Street patrons. Not only is that surprising from Hollywood, it’s also honest—and that makes it interesting too.