MovieMonday: Hustlers

Here is a typical reaction to this new movie, which had a very successful opening weekend.

It’s Goodfellas in a G-string. But Scafaria’s film is always a blast to watch, 
resulting in a surprising level of emotional depth.
 
I’m not sure I see the point.
For starters,  Hustlers doesn’t have that much in common with Goodfellas.  That 1990 movie, about some lowbrow gangsters, started by making audiences laugh and then turned up the volume on the violence and cruelty, at which point the people in the theater started to think, ooh, maybe this isn’t so funny.  In short, that movie showed the consequences.
This movie is about scantily clad women who entertain lascivious men with pole dances and lap dances and such.  They are not prostitutes, not even strippers.  Just making a living, you know.
The star who carries the show is Jennifer Lopez, a legitimately good actress who, incidentally, trained carefully for a beautiful early pole dancing scene that shows off her famed derriere to good effect and inspires the male clients to throw many many dollar bills (or $5 or $20 bills perhaps; the camera doesn’t focus on the currency, after all) in appreciation, as well as to tuck bills into the back of her little costume.
Lopez plays Ramona, a seasoned veteran in the club who takes a newbie named Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing, teaching her dance moves and generally encouraging her as she gets better at attracting the men’s attention and money.  Real “sisterhood is powerful” stuff.
Later Destiny says, “2007 was the fucking best.  I made more money than a goddamn brain surgeon.”  (The movie does not make clear whether that money was net or gross but, if you’re someone who has not worked or spent time in such an establishment the word “gross” does apply.)
Then Destiny takes time off, moves away with a boyfriend, has a baby, returns to New York with a daughter and no boyfriend and finds, to her chagrin, that the the gentleman’s club lost most of its business during the 2008 financial crisis.  Ramona tells Destiny that their new coworkers, Russians, “give blow jobs for $300 a pop.”
In short, times are much harder.  Destiny can’t find retail work in the high-end stores where she shopped during the good old days.  The club owner won’t let Ramona switch to half-time shifts to take care of her own daughter.  The fewer clients are sleazier and expect more attention, if you know what I mean, for less money.  It’s all so unfair.
So the pair start “fishing,” first going after old clients and then trolling for new ones in bars.  They spike the men’s drinks with drugs and when the marks become happy and forgetful, they are dragged to the club, where their credit cards are maxed out on spending for services and champagne.  Destiny brags that, not infrequently, the women’s billings run to  $100,000 for the club and the team.
The film has several scenes of drugged men reduced to gibbering fools, and the audience in my theater thought these were just hilarious.
Scams like the fishing one work until they don’t, of course, and in this case the film winds down rather as Goodfellas did.
I get that much of the appeal of a movie like this is the soft-core pornography of flimsily clad women, rather as the Goodfellas appeal was the soft-core violence pornography of men with guns shooting each other.
But, taken as a story, the Hustlers plot falls back on some old cliches.
For one thing, Ramona and Destiny believe their “fishing” is justified because Wall Streeters are bad guys. “You see what they did to this country — they stole from everybody,” Ramona says.  “The game is rigged and doesn’t reward people who play by the rules.”
Yes, Wall Streeters played a role in the Great Recession, and, yes, a lot of Wall Streeters behaved like horndogs in the decade or two leading up to that recession.

The plot in this movie applies the Wall Street = evil shorthand, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Are Ramona and Destiny angry because the sleazy guys stopped spending lots of money on their pole dances, or are Ramona and Destiny playing Robin Hoods in deshabille to seek vengeance for all the little people hurt in the recession?

A second cliche is that these poor women have no other alternatives and so MUST work in the gentleman’s club.    Destiny, who was abandoned by her parents, is the sole support of her daughter and her grandmother.  Another woman who joins the fishing team says, “My brother doesn’t talk to me anymore.  I told my mom and dad that I worked here, and they kicked me out of the house.”

In this movie, the female leads are involved in what they regard as a mild version of what we now call “sex work,” but the theme is as old as drama itself.  Here are some film actresses who have played strippers and prostitutes — in some cases, multiple times:  Shirley MacClaine, Demi Moore, Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Mira Sorvino, Elisabeth Shue, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Greta Garbo, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Basinger and Jane Fonda.

Can we declare a moratorium, even a short one, on this handy but hackneyed trope?  Male heroes frequently triumph over obstacles but seldom over obstacles that reduce them to sex objects.

Notes

This film is drawn from a real-life situation described in a long, long magazine article that I didn’t finish.  One of the two main characters in that article is said to be writing a book of her own, and I don’t plan to read that either.  The actual complainers who started the police investigation that ended the fishing hustle were two non-Wall Streeters:  a man who was so cleaned out he lost his house and a cardiologist from New Jersey.

—–
Am I the only one who thinks it’s a little odd to release a film that congratulates women for drugging men and taking advantage of them financially less than a year after Bill Cosby was sent to prison for drugging women and taking advantage of them sexually?


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