TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Hustlers," which is based on a true story, stars Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as high-end strippers who get involved in crime. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it shows the lives of its heroines from a perspective we don't usually see.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're making a list of occupations with bad reputations, it's hard to know who would fare worse - strippers or Wall Street traders. The two collide in the new movie "Hustlers," whose title could refer to either group. Inspired by an article in New York Magazine, "Hustlers" tells the story of a band of New York strippers who start ripping off their rich finance-world clients.
It was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for vaguely cute movies like "The Meddler" and "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist." Here, Scafaria ventures something harder-edged. She takes cinematic inspiration from Martin Scorsese, that chronicler of men behaving badly, then gives it a feminist twirl. Just as "Goodfellas," "Casino" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" provided a guided tour of their outlaw male subcultures, so "Hustlers" drops us into the workings of a high-end strip club from the point of view of their women employees. The action begins in 2007, when Destiny, played by Constance Wu, begins working at a fancy club whose other dancers include the musician Cardi B. The reigning star and money magnet is Jennifer Lopez's character, Ramona, a spellbinding dancer who takes pride in having control. Seeing something of herself - only nicer - in Destiny, Ramona takes this newcomer under her wing, teaching her to pole dance, to identify the different tiers of Wall Street richness and to squeeze the most money out of them. And back then, the money was flowing. Ramona and Destiny party, rent fancy apartments, buy chinchilla coats and designer purses, all the while raising their daughters as single moms.
Then in 2008, the financial crisis hits. The high rollers aren't rolling high anymore. And Destiny struggles to get work in retail. Rather than be trapped in minimum-wage jobs, Ramona enlists Destiny and some others in a scheme that will target wealthy men and, with the help of drugged drinks, tap into their credit cards. This is, of course, not just immoral but illegal. And Destiny has doubts. But as the wised-up Ramona explains, this is how the system works.
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JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Ramona) We got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail, not one. Is that fair? You ever think about when they come into the club? That's stolen money. That's what's paying for their [expletive]. The firefighters' retirement fund.
POWERS: At first, Ramona's scheme goes as planned. She and Destiny are again living large. But if you've seen "Goodfellas," "Boogie Nights" or "American Hustle," you know that they will overreach, and the bottom will fall out as surely as Wile E. Coyote will plummet when he looks down after running off that cliff. Although "Hustlers" could easily become a tedious morality play, Scafaria doesn't let it bog down in recrimination. She directs the verve I hadn't seen in her earlier work. Without condoning their behavior, she captures the giddy energy of Destiny and Ramona's rise, taps into Wu's melancholy core of nice girl decency and wins a galvanizing, career-best performance from Lopez. Whether shaking her booty for braying patrons, philosophizing cynically about the American way or letting tenderness seep through her money-mad veneer, Lopez's Ramona exudes power. She's the sun around which Destiny and the whole movie orbits.
Normally, strippers turn up in movies to satisfy the male gaze. They're there to be ogled. These are depressingly limited roles for actresses. The lucky ones get to have hearts of gold. The unlucky ones get murdered to launch the plot or wind up in career killers like "Showgirls." "Hustlers" is different, for Scafaria likes her female characters, films their bodies respectfully and gives her performers room to shine. Even Cardi B, not a great actress, gets to flaunt her trademark panache. What gives the movie its bite is the portrait of working in the skin trade. We see the economics of these men's clubs - how the male owners and managers skim off the dancers' earnings, how they cater to the scuzzy VIPs whose excesses get covered up and how most dancers struggle to survive.
For this is, at bottom, a story about social class and the options available to women from families without money. After all, it's not as if Destiny and Ramona dropped out of prep school to pursue their lifelong dream of becoming exotic dancers. Of course, no single movie could possibly transform the image of strippers in a world all too ready to judge them. But "Hustlers" does make us see their lives in a richer and more understanding way than most Hollywood movies. It makes them sympathetic, which is far more than you can say for their customers.
GROSS: Film critic John Powers reviewed "Hustlers." Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New York Times reporters Robin Pogebrin and Kate Kelly, who covered the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. After he was confirmed, they continued their reporting to learn things that weren't revealed in the hearings or the FBI investigation. They've written a new book called "The Education Of Brett Kavanaugh." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.