Does having a female writer and/or director on a film make a difference? It arguably does in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria does double duty on this film, based on a New York magazine article. It's an absorbing story of strippers, strip-club patrons, crime and drugs that could have been sleazy and exploitative but isn't.
In 2007, Asian-American Dolores (Constance Wu, a long way away from the world of Crazy Rich Asians), is working at Moves, a New York strip club, to support herself and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho).
Dolores - under the stripper name Destiny - is not very successful at collecting money from the raucous, randy patrons. She loses much of what she does make to the male owner and employees.Then she approaches veteran Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) to mentor her and things improve.
Watching Dolores learn the tricks of the trade is entertaining and educational and doesn't come across as prurient. There's a certain distance - both physical and emotional - that comes across in the dance scenes: they're depicted as the businesslike transactions they are. And Lopez's skills on the pole are genuinely impressive.
The two women form a successful double act and Destiny makes a friend as well as much more money than before but after the global financial crisis hits, the cash doesn't come in as fast.
And that's not Destiny's only problem. She becomes pregnant, tosses her lousy boyfriend out, and is unable to find another job. So she reluctantly goes back to stripping, now an even less enticing prospect.
Ramona, also feeling the pinch, recruits Destiny and a couple of newbies to take part in a new scam to make money. They approach rich men in bars, get them drunk, take them back to Moves, and max out their credit cards after drugging them. They figure nobody's going to report being robbed by strippers.
Soon the women are rolling in money and indulging in shopping sprees but problems emerge. Other strippers twig and imitate their tactics, some of the new recruits are problematic, and the women are forced to move their operation to hotels or even their own homes.
And Destiny, despite needing the money, has a conscience. She's troubled by the drugging - which can be dangerous - and by the effects the women's activities have on some of the targets. But Ramona remains ruthlessly focused.
Something's gotta give.
This could be seen as another high quality but familiar "crime ultimately doesn't pay " film in the vein of Goodfellas. But while there are some similarities to that Martin Scorsese film thematically, narratively and technically, Hustlers is well worth watching on its own merits.
The emphasis is on the characters and their camaraderie - or lack of it - as much as the crime, though seeing how the schemes work (or don't) has its own fascination. The morality is suitably fuzzy - many of the men they prey on are jerks, but their tactics are somewhat dubious.
There are some flashy camera moves and editing tricks but they're not terribly distracting.
Lopez and Wu are both impressive as are the other actors (including familar faces like Mercedes Reuhl and Frank Whaley).
It's an absorbing story of strippers, strip-club patrons, crime and drugs that could have been sleazy and exploitative but isn't.
The flashback structure - with Destiny telling the story to a journalist (Julia Stiles) - seems unnecessary as does the small cliffhanger on which the film ends. And, at least when I saw it, the film's soundtrack seemed a little murky (dialogue could be hard to hear sometimes). Whether this is the fault of the soundtrack or the cinema I don't know, but it didn't seriously detract from the enjoyment.