Hustlers harnesses animosity against Wall Street, but devolves into celebration of mindless spending

MK Raghavendra

Oct 06, 2019 10:03:00 IST

It is a welcome relief to see a Hollywood film today dealing with the world as we know it and populated by mortals. The very thought of witnessing another superhero saving the universe from a super villain wielding a super weapon tends to induce nausea. Superhero films are visually — and in terms of narrative — simplistic and crude, despite the money spent on them, indicating that the reality bequeathed to us is more exciting than any we might fashion out.

Films about the world, at the very least, awaken curiosity about actual happenings – in New York or London rather than ‘Asgard’. Even if such films are wanting, they still deal with situations more complex, socially and psychologically, and are suitable for grown-ups, as most animation and fantasy films – that dominate Hollywood exports — are not. Hustlers is a women-centric film directed by Lorene Scafaria and generally more enjoyable than Hollywood films have been. It is based on a New York Magazine article from 2015 about a bunch of strippers who devised a method to con their Wall Street clients of their not-so-hard-earned money.

 Hustlers harnesses animosity against Wall Street, but devolves into celebration of mindless spending

YouTube screenshot

The film is constructed around a series of interviews with Dorothy, a New York stripper of Chinese ethnicity and each segment leads to a flashback. It becomes evident quite early on that Dorothy (who has taken on the professional name ‘Destiny’ (Constance Wu) and her friend Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) have been involved in crime and the film shows how that came about through flashbacks. Their story begins in 2007, Destiny admiring Ramona because of her adeptness at pole dancing and the tips she is raking in, and Ramona taking her under her wing. Destiny’s chief concern is her grandmother, who she is looking after.

The girls’ clients at the strip club (called ‘Moves’) are Wall Street bigwigs who have plenty of money to throw around and everyone is doing well. But then comes the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008; the real estate bubble bursts and money disappears from sight. Destiny became pregnant, but after her daughter’s birth she also broke up with her boyfriend. She has a child to bring up now, but no source of income, and she returns to the club. The situation has now changed and the old strippers have left. The new ones are immigrants prepared to do sex acts for money and Destiny, who draws a line at that, is handicapped. It is now that Ramona comes back into her life and they devise a new way to make money.

There are four girls in the group, all of different ethnicities; apart from Destiny (Asian) and Ramona (Hispanic) there are Mercedes (African-American) and Annabelle (white), with Ramona as leader. Ramona targets rich men at bars, gets them drunk and drugged, and then escorts them to Moves where the girls steal their credit card numbers and charge them to their limit. Destiny joins in, and learns that Ramona uses a mix of ketamine and MDMA to impair judgment and cause memory loss in their targets, a tactic deemed worthwhile since their victims will rarely admit to being robbed by strippers. Still, things do go wrong largely because of copycats and the women having to admit undesirables into their circles — other women who are not reliable because of drug abuse.

It should be obvious from the above that the sympathies of the audience are enlisted on behalf of the strippers; the legend at the conclusion also indicates that the punishments they received were nominal. The mood is celebratory but at some point complexity is allowed, since one of the men cheated by the women is neither a rich CEO nor a lecher, and he seems more interested in Destiny’s family life and her daughter’s schooling. But the women stubbornly refuse to return his money, though he has nothing left.

Still, there is something vaguely amiss in the film, although it takes some time for us to identify it. The film harnesses the general public animosity against Wall Street and much of it is about the ill-gotten money its executives routinely throw around. Ramona invokes the financial crisis of 2008, drawing attention to the fact that none of the CEOs involved went to jail. The sense here is of ill-gotten money badly spent. When the women come into money however, the film shows them splurging, all of them without exception buying fur-coats, branded clothes and suchlike. Even Destiny’s grandmother joins in the splurging and it is as though that is the right thing to do, since it implies ‘fun’. Moreover, the law caught up with the women in a way it did not catch up with Wall Street and one is also left wondering what became of the women thereafter.

The ‘market’ is generally portrayed as neutral by the media, allowing people to make their own choices in their lives. But in actual practice there is enormous pressure mounted on the consumer to live a certain kind of life. There are no models for what kind of personal life is desirable, but Hustlers shows that buying expensive goods in shopping malls is the most ‘fun’ way to live. It is taking a definite moral position and the fact that the women are of different ethnicities aims at making the message of the film ‘universal’. But within all this celebration of ‘universal womanhood’, it privileges the monoculture of consumerist spending.

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Hustlers is good entertainment, but it provides evidence of the mindless lifestyles promoted in free market economies. The market is forever feeding us phoney information and what a film like Hustlers should have done is to indicate that there were other ways of dealing with money than having ‘fun’.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

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Updated Date: Oct 06, 2019 10:03:00 IST