By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Any film set in the world of women stripping for money and the men ogling them is bound to have a certain edge to it.
But there are various ways to approach such subject matter, and it’s the sordid treatment it receives in the fact-based drama “Hustlers” (STX) that pulls the picture under morally.
Adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s movie tells the tale of two pole dancers, novice Destiny (Constance Wu) and veteran Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who form a friendship. As they bond, Ramona instructs her newfound protege in the finer points of burlesque.
Together with their colleagues, the duo also indulges in the time-honored technique of getting their wealthy clients drunk and bilking them out of exaggerated sums charged to their credit cards. So long as times are good, no one much seems to care about this fraud. But then comes the Great Recession.
With the club empty of patrons and themselves strapped for cash as a result, Ramona and Destiny collaborate on a scheme to up the ante by drugging their customers and maxing out their credit lines while they’re helpless. As their plot succeeds, they expand their pool of talent beyond their first two partners, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart). Inevitably, though, things get out of hand.
Scafaria tries to showcase the camaraderie among the ladies as an example of Hollywood’s much-loved theme of the self-chosen family. While riding high, they give each other lavish gifts at Christmas and even say grace before the subsequent meal.
Yet the attempt to justify financial exploitation by the sexually exploited and blame the whole thing on Wall Street rings hollow. And the depiction of the two protagonists’ professional milieu is tasteless in its lack of restraint.
A few glimpses of flesh might be justified, given the context. But here the cameras linger not only in front of the stage — onto which dollar bills fall like snow as the women writhe — but in the dressing room as well.
Overheated and ethically confused, “Hustlers” also displays a raunchy outlook that makes it unfit for viewers committed to human dignity.
The film contains blurred values, including a debased view of human sexuality, frequent nudity, cohabitation, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, constant sexual references, a few uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths, pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.