“Hustlers” – Schadenfreude for The Children of the Great Recession

By Josiah Wampfler

“Hustlers” is everything I want in a big mainstream hit. It’s fun as hell, visually dazzling, has some absolutely tremendous performances at the center, it is smart as hell and has something to say. It is the kind of film that doesn’t often get made. In fact, “Hustlers” is a particular crossroads of different things that you just don’t see in a $155 million worldwide hit.

First off, films as popular as “Hustlers” rarely even deal with sex work, making the film’s treatment of the profession truly remarkable. This isn’t a pity party for these women like so many other films are. It doesn’t demonize strippers and sex workers, but it also doesn’t present an overly-idealized version of being a stripper. “Hustlers” celebrates the athleticism of these women (see: Jennifer Lopez’s opening dance number), lets us experience the joy they get out of it, but also recognizes the problems and abuse they can face. There have been valid criticisms from real-life strippers and sex workers about how accurate the film actually is. This is not discounting those criticisms, but I think on the whole “Hustlers” seems to be fairly accurate when it comes to nature of the profession and does a much better job than most films.

Another thing that we still see far to infrequently is a massive worldwide hit like this being directed by a woman. I unfortunately have not seen either of Lorene Scafaria’s previous two films, but “Hustlers” makes me want to change that, and the film’s success likely guarantees I will be seeing more of her in the future. She directs the hell out of this movie. The film has an incredibly interesting visual style that has the sweeping camera movement reminiscent of a Scorsese film, but that also feels a bit more relaxed and restrained. The film is energetic, but in its smooth, deliberate movements it mirrors the dancers: It is sexy. Yet, there is definitely a female gaze to the film that revels rightly in the beauty of the women, but also doesn’t reduce them to mere objects like the male gaze tends to do.

But, the thing that makes “Hustlers” such a truly remarkable and stunning film is the writing and what it has to say. We are thankfully starting to see more films about poverty, income inequality and specifically the 2008 financial crisis (a la “The Big Short”), but few provide what “Hustlers” provides. In “The Big Short” we see the evil of the banks first-hand, the actual human cost is explained to us and we grow to hate those responsible. But, they get away with it. There are no consequences.

“Hustlers” provides us with catharsis. We get to see these Wall Street assholes get bamboozled out of their blood money. We get to see them for the douchebags that they are. Yes, the women end up crossing into morally repugnant areas and doing obviously illegal things. Yes, the film is also about how you can become that which you hate. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it. And I don’t think it means we shouldn’t enjoy it. None of the people who caused the 2008 financial crisis ever went to jail. None of them faced any real consequences. “Hustlers” is schadenfreude for a nation that was so royally dicked over and never got justice.

And it is Lorene Scafaria’s writing that so brilliantly channels this and the performances of Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu that perfectly synthesizes this. Not only does the film contain dozens of endlessly quotable lines (“This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”), but Scafaria manages to craft a film that feels like a gigantic fuck you to Wall Street while also recognizing the moral complexity of the events and telling an incredibly touching story of a deep friendship mired by this scandal. It is a story of women trying to survive under capitalism and how the system can lead survivors to become the predators.

It is this dynamic that leads to such a compelling relationship at the center of the film, and Lopez and Wu provide the incredible chemistry to fully realize a relationship that makes for a surprisingly potent emotional cocktail. Both women are absolutely pitch perfect, leading a cast that includes several other fantastic performers. And in the end, it is these performances that make the film not just smart, well-directed, and well-written, but fun as all hell. It isn’t just schadenfreude because we get to work out our anger at the Wall Street bros by seeing them lose money, but that we get to laugh with these women who they mistreated. In the end, “Hustlers” among its many other qualities gives those fucked over by Wall Street the last laugh. That is worth something at least.

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