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‘Hustlers’ Is a Dark Portrait of American Greed in a G-String

The film’s enterprising strippers scam their rich, amoral Wall Street clients — only to become as bad as the men they’re conning

A few weeks ago, I was at an advance screening of Hobbs & Shaw — there was an empty seat next to me, and a woman I’d never met before sat down in it. The movie was about to start, but she tried to engage me in a debate about why anybody thought the world needed a Fast and Furious spinoff film. (Hey, lady, don’t ask me — I didn’t make the damn thing.) And then, apropos of nothing, she announced, “You know, all these movies are just about money. Do you ever think about what the world would be like if we didn’t need money? 

It was such an odd, goofily earnest thing to ask that I’ve been retelling the anecdote ever since. I’m no hardcore capitalist, but even I understand that society doesn’t function without some sort of bartering system. Literally, you get what you pay for.

And yet, the more I’ve recounted this woman’s observation, the more it’s stuck with me. I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately — how it dictates our life decisions, how the wrong people have too much of it — and so it’s hard not to see extreme wealth as an illness, drug and scourge. Maybe that lady at Hobbs & Shaw was on to something after all. 

Those thoughts bubbled around my brain while watching Hustlers, the very fun and sharp crime film based on a true story about a group of New York strippers who go from dancing to scheming, hatching a scam to bilk their high-rolling Wall Street clientele out of their ill-gotten riches. On the one hand, Hustlers is a heist movie that celebrates some enterprising erotic entertainers. (It’s the smart feminist revenge tale that The Kitchen desperately wanted to be.) But on the other, it’s a cautionary tale about how the pursuit of money leads to ruin. Hustlers’ protagonists have perfectly reasonable rationales for why they commit their crimes, but they end up as bad as the men they target.

Constance Wu plays Destiny, a young woman who, in 2007, is trying to make a living stripping. She falls under the tutelage of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced dancer who’s beloved by club patrons. Ramona explains to Destiny how to become a better dancer — slow grinding on the guys’ groins, confident moves on the pole — but, more importantly, how to decode what kind of Wall Street type she’s interacting with. Low-level traders require one set of behavior, while the big bosses are a different type of monster, necessitating different tactics. But Ramona’s chief talking point is that these men are all greedy, all getting rich in ethically slippery ways. Strippers provide a service to such sharks, putting them in contact with beautiful women they can pay to pretend that they’re desirable. If Destiny plays the game right, she can get rich, too.

That arrangement works pretty well at the start of Hustlers, but once the Great Recession hits a year later, many on Wall Street are unemployed — meaning that there’s a lot less money for lap dances. Destiny and Ramona struggle in this new reality, until they hit upon an idea: What if they go into business for themselves? They concoct an ingenious con, which involves them and some of their stripper friends seizing on hapless male victims at bars, drugging them and then maxing out their credit cards while purportedly showing them a good time. Sure, it’s illegal, but as far as Ramona is concerned, how much worse is it than the bankers who never went to jail for destroying the economy in 2008?  

There’s a scrappy, underdog energy to Hustlers that’s initially appealing as we see Destiny and Ramona bond while taking their clients’ money. A prevailing cultural view suggests that strippers are exploited and demeaned by the gross men who throw singles at them, and while there’s certainly truth to that perception, Hustlers subverts the notion of these women being helpless victims. Quite the contrary, Destiny and Ramona are in charge, using their sexuality to outsmart dumb, horny bros by fulfilling their locker-room fantasies, all the while making a mint. They aren’t exploited, they’re empowered, and it’s a blast to see how the film (written and directed by Lorene Scafaria) takes us behind the curtain to revel in their ingenuity and expertise. 

But although Hustlers remains funny and frisky throughout, an encroaching darkness descends upon the film that slyly undercuts the fizzy pleasure. At first, Destiny simply wants to pull herself out of her meager working-class existence, make a little money and support her grandmother. As the cash starts rolling in, however, she gets addicted — and when the dancers turn to crime for bigger paydays, she doesn’t bat an eye. Destiny insists that she doesn’t want to hurt anyone — just rich guys who wouldn’t care if they lose a few thousand dollars — but the team’s avarice gets worse and worse, and they stop worrying so much about the ethics. They want the bigger apartment. They want the nicer car. And they want to live in a world where their increasingly preposterous rationalizations still hold water. After all, Ramona tells Destiny, the whole country is a strip club — some are shaking their moneymakers, and others are throwing the dollars. The only way to end up on the winning side is to cheat — everybody’s doing it, so what’s the harm?

Since the Great Recession, we’ve had several films speak directly to that economic crisis, and it’s funny how often sex has played a part in these movies. The Girlfriend Experience used the crash as a backdrop for a story about a New York escort who’s little more than a transaction for her wealthy clients. The Wolf of Wall Street was Martin Scorsese’s coked-up depiction of Jordan Belfort’s unscrupulous, sex-crazed behavior. The Oscar-winning The Big Short put Margot Robbie in an inviting bubble bath to explain complicated banking terminology. And Magic Mike turned a male strip club into a metaphor for a floundering working class, examining how beefcake’s fleeting pleasures help distract from life’s daily misery. 

The connection between sex and money is made clear at the start of Hustlers: When Destiny first meets Ramona, she’s just delivered a stunning performance at the club, the patrons showering her with dollars. Walking away, draped in cash, Ramona says to her, “Doesn’t money make you horny?”

Ironically, though, actual sex is very little in evidence in Hustlers. We see women stripping, dancing and gyrating, but no one has sex in the movie. (Ramona and Destiny have children, but baby daddies are barely seen.) To be sure, this is an R-rated film — it’s not prudishness that keeps us from seeing some screwing — but for these characters, material possessions are a bigger turn-on than sex or love. (Cardi B has a cameo as one of the club’s strippers, proudly showing off her vibrator, which she considers a superior investment to a boyfriend.)

In a sense, these women are shrewd: A relationship often doesn’t last as long as a fur coat. Hustlers easily passes the Bechdel test since none of the strippers has much use for a man. But like so many movie characters before them, they’re chasing a constant rush that will only lead to their destruction — and unlike the Wall Street bros, they’ll end up in jail for their bad deeds. Destiny and Ramona might consider themselves Robin Hood types, stealing from the amoral rich in order to give the less-fortunate an opportunity at the American dream. But Hustlers is powered by a bitter truth that Destiny will eventually learn: The sins they despise in their targets will soon be the same ones they themselves violate. Fittingly, these women and their Wall Street dupes are made for one another — they’re all hustlers, peddling a fantasy of a good life that the rest of us are gullible enough to think is real.

Here are three other takeaways from Hustlers 

#1. The movie perpetuates the “Stevie Wonder isn’t blind” truther argument.

Ramona has been a stripper since the early 1990s, and when she and Destiny are first bonding, she tells the younger woman stories about the good ol’ days. For instance, she mentions that Stevie Wonder once came into her club — and that she’s convinced he’s not really blind. Ramona doesn’t provide any more details, and some audience members might think it’s just a throwaway joke, when in fact it’s a reference to one of the great internet debates. You see, a whole lot of people believe Wonder has been lying all this time about his lack of eyesight.

A few years ago, the Deadspin team dove into this meme, trying to find its roots. Turns out, there’s ample examples of the multi-Grammy-winning musician behaving in public as if he has sight, including a photo of Wonder taking a picture of a Michael Jackson statue. Most of this so-called evidence could be dismissed as simply Wonder trying to integrate himself into everyday life. But for the conspiracy-freaks, it’s proof that he’s a fraud who’s hiding the fact that he can see so we’ll be even more impressed with his musical genius:

I think the “Stevie Wonder isn’t blind” truthers are pretty dumb, but I did wonder: Why would a non-sighted person take pictures? My research took me to the Chicago Lighthouse, which has been around since 1906, and serves “the blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veteran communities.” I learned that blind people take pictures all the time, even though those photos won’t be for them:

“Like anyone else, blind and visually impaired people want pictures to enjoy and share with family. Naturally, if we go on a trip or vacation, we’ll be anxious to show our family and friends the different places we visited. Even if some of us can’t see the pictures, they serve as a memory and souvenir.”

The article also points out that Apple’s iPhone has long allowed visually impaired people to do all sorts of things, including taking photos, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Wonder engages in the same activity that millions of other blind people do.

So sorry, Ramona: I think you’re wrong about the guy. 

#2. What are the most popular strip-club songs?

Hustlers’ dancers work at an upscale club, which means the songs they strip to are more on the pop/hip-hop spectrum than the trashy-hard-rock side. Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” and Usher’s “Love in This Club” are all crowd-favorites, and sleek, sexy, catchy songs dominate the soundtrack. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a strip club, but I was curious what songs are especially popular these days. (Remember, Hustlers is largely set in the late-aughts.) Enter Hard Rock Daddy, a website that, among other things, offers a weekly Top 20 Strip Club Rock Songs list. According to the site, the chart is “derived from data collected by PANDA (Professional Adult Night Club DJ Association) and the Top StripJoints DJ Download Chart.” Not surprisingly, their current Top 20 is filled with hard rock songs, including tunes by Scott Stapp, Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot and the Black Keys. But this is currently the most-popular track:

Yup, that’s “Blow,” from Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars, and it really sounds like a certain kind of strip-club song — although not the kind you’d probably hear at the Hustlers club. Interestingly, in 2014, The New York Post asked local strippers what songs they liked, and it was a far more R&B-centric list. For my dollar bills, these types of songs are simply better for a strip-club experience because they’re sultry rather than loud, brash and aggressive. 

This may all seem academic, but strip-club plays can actually help boost record sales. In fact, Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen has credited exotic dancers for making their 1980s hit “Pour Some Sugar on Me” the smash that it became:

“Actually, the album came out, Hysteria — our biggest album — and it tanked initially. ‘Cause we spent so much money on it, and it didn’t make it back. And we were, like, ‘Oh, man.’ We’re on tour, and it’s half-empty arenas. And this song starts getting requested by strippers in Florida, ‘cause they’re performing to it. So then people are requesting it on the radio, and it kind of snowballs, or fireballs, if you want, from that point on. And then the second place was Canada — a lot of strip bars, apparently. And it just went on, and it honestly caught on from there. And then the album went to No. 1 three times and ended up going 13 times platinum in the U.S. So, yeah, it was ‘cause of the strippers in Florida.”

That’s not an isolated incident: When Guns N’ Roses finally released their long-delayed Chinese Democracy, the label sent some focus tracks to strip clubs, hoping that patrons would be hooked and seek out the album. “It’s always nice to present music to people when they’re having a good time,” Bob Chiappardi, who worked on Chinese Democracy’s marketing, told The Wall Street Journal in 2008. “It’s all about association.” And he’s right: Since watching Hustlers, I’ve wanted to blast “Criminal” and “Gimme More” because they’re used so well in the film. 

Plus, can anyone hear “Pony” now and not think of Magic Mike?

#3. Here’s the next Lorene Scafaria film you should watch.

Lorene Scafaria’s screenwriting career started with her 2008 adaptation of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a much beloved under-the-radar romantic comedy. Since then, she’s been directing her own scripts, and Hustlers looks to be her biggest hit yet. Before Hustlers, she worked on the 2016 mother-daughter drama The Meddler, but I’d like to take a moment to stick up for her directorial debut, which didn’t receive nearly as good of reviews as the two movies she’s made since. I think it’s underrated and deserves a second look. 

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a fresh spin on a very 21st-century premise, which is laid out right there in the title. Steve Carell and Keira Knightley play New York neighbors who, along with the rest of humanity, learn terrifying news: An asteroid is heading toward Earth, which will wipe out all life on the planet. The space rock’s unstoppable impact will occur in about three weeks, so what should everybody do with the time they have left? Carell decides he wants to hit the road to find his soul mate, his high school girlfriend whom he’s lost track of over the years, and Knightley opts to tag along.

Although a little uneven, Seeking a Friend offers an intriguingly realistic depiction of the end of the world. We’re used to movies that present a post-apocalyptic landscape — the bad thing has already happened — but Scafaria’s film is interested in how human beings would spend their days in preparation for the inevitable. This would seem to be a hard subject for comedy, but Seeking a Friend is often funny — well, funny-sad — and it’s a thoughtful look at what really matters in life. 

I don’t love the ending, which feels a little forced, but the grim certainty that life is absolutely going to cease on Earth makes it unbearably bittersweet. Sure, maybe Carell and Knightley will fall in love, but does it really matter if a killer asteroid has your name on it?