Hustlers is a moral quandary.

Once upon a time, I used to have to go into strip joints — yes, had to — in order to find ladies who had figures similar enough to actresses who didn’t want to do their own nude scenes, or who would appear nude in “European” versions of music videos. 

One day I asked this girl, who I heard mention that she had a master’s in journalism, why she stripped for a living. She answered very matter-of-factly:

“Because I have two children, and working at the newspaper would pay me about $175 a week, and here I make $700 a night in tips.”

You know, I myself would probably strip for $700 a night, not that all strippers make that much, and something tells me that I personally wouldn’t. My point is, I don’t make moral judgements against people for stripping or even outright prostitution, but I do when it comes to theft, and therein lies the plot and moral of Hustlers, a dramatization of Jessica Pressler’s 2015 magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” helmed by director/screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler). The names, of course, are changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.

When Destiny (Constance Wu) comes under the wing of her new best friend Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), at a Manhattan strip club, things go along comfortably if not spectacularly — until the 2008 financial collapse. Destiny and Ramona realize that many of the brokers who were their regular customers can no longer drop $1,000 a night, so they develop a new business model: They randomly “meet” a mark at a secondary bar, take him back to their club, essentially roofie him, take his wallet, and run up his credit card(s) to the limit. No more $20 tips on the dance floor (or the private room); now they’re making $50,000 to $100,000 a night, essentially robbing the rich to give to themselves.

No big deal? We’re talking about stockbrokers and fund managers, people who had just robbed the world of trillions of dollars, right? Scafaria isn’t subtle about drawing moral parallels — or the lack thereof — between Wall Street and the sex trade. At least with the strippers, you had a good time. Of course, I’ve never partied with a stockbroker, but I do know what it feels like to be screwed by one — I once had my brokerage account depleted by “churning,” a practice whereby brokers continually make trades in and out of your account, charging you 10 percent on every transaction. What, essentially, is the difference between that and Destiny and Romona’s thievery?

It’s not the moral question or even Scafaria’s rewriting of Pressler’s reportage or of history itself that bothers me. The problem is I’m just not feeling the characters or their friendship, and I don’t think it has anything to do with Wu or Lopez’s performances as much as with the writing. At 50, Lopez is stunningly able to pull off 35, but more than that I appreciate her willingness to forsake being the star and instead provide support for Wu.

The biggest hook to establish Destiny’s character is that she’s desperate to provide for her elderly grandmother, somewhat like Peter Parker is for his Aunt May, and in some ways, in her few short scenes, Wai Ching Ho (TV’s Daredevil) becomes the most fully realized character, as she regales Destiny and friends with surprising tales of her own youth.

Hustlers runs nearly two hours, which ought to be enough time to make me care about these women. They can run around as skimpily clad as they want to — and they do — but that doesn’t really tell me anything about them.

Maybe I just can’t care about these women who want revenge on Wall Street, but repeat the sins of their marks.  


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