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Once upon a time hollywood press conf.

The Joker Coming October.

Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Hustlers, Review: Hurt people hurt people, butt naturally


Very few films showcase so much of the female anatomy for so much screen time, with the barest possible ‘coverage’, while highlighting the lives and life-styles of pole/lap-dancers/strippers. Hustlers does all that and adds a new twist to the scenario by adding a hustle to their bustle trade, drugging, conning and blackmailing their clients, to rip off thousands of dollars from their credit cards. It’s a dirty game, played with one-sided rules, providing some vicarious thrills to viewers, most of them of the cheaper variety.

Hustlers’ legitimacy is provided by the basis of the story, which is a New York magazine article. Proceedings begin in 2014, as a straight narrative, and then go into flashback mode. Former New York City-based stripper Dorothy, who is of oriental descent, is interviewed with Elizabeth, a journalist working on a story involving Dorothy's former friend and mentor, fellow stripper Ramona Vega. Dorothy talks, sometimes hesitatingly, but ultimately shares most of her memories

In 2007, Dorothy, known by her stripper name as Destiny, is working at Moves, a strip club, to support her debt-ridden grandmother, but is barely getting by. Mesmerised by Ramona's pole dancing performance and the tips she earns, Destiny meets her on the roof of the club. Ramona agrees to take Destiny under her wing, and Destiny’s earnings shoot-up. A year later, the financial crisis strikes the USA, and both women find themselves short on cash, as patrons stay away from the club. Destiny becomes pregnant. Her boyfriend leaves her shortly after their daughter's birth, and she is unable to find a new job.

With no other options, Destiny goes back to stripping. Moves has changed and the club is now primarily staffed by immigrant women, mainly Russians, willing to perform sex acts for money, a red line Destiny is unwilling to cross. She reconnects with Ramona, who introduces her to a new scheme. Along with her two protegées, Mercedes and Annabelle, Ramona targets rich men, mainly stock-market players,  at bars, gets them drunk and drugged, and then escorts them to Moves, where the girls get them to reveal their credit card details, and charge them to their limit. Destiny joins in, and learns that Ramona uses strong drugs, to impair judgment and cause memory loss in their targets, a tactic deemed fool-proof, since their mostly married victims will rarely admit to being robbed by strippers they retained.

The article that forms the basis of this true story was written by Jessica Pressler, a staff writer and later Contributing Editor, at New York magazine. She is the former editor of the magazine’s news blog, Daily Intelligencer, and a regular contributor to GQ and Elle. In 2015, Pressler was nominated for the National Magazine Award. Here’s an excerpt from the article, The Hustlers at Scores, published in 2015, and posted on her home page on 06 June 2018: ‘The men were mostly assholes. Even when they didn’t start out that way, they’d get drunk and say things like, “Did your father abuse you? Is that why you do this?,” which was unnerving, even when it wasn’t true. The majority were married, though that didn’t stop them from asking for things like blow jobs or sex or to be penetrated with a Champagne bottle, a request that they were shocked came from a clean-cut family man.’

Profiting from perversion and deviant sexual tendencies among moneyed men, these girls represent nothing new, except that they went farther than their more conventional professional associates. Screenplay writer and director Lorene Scafaria wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and wrote and directed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. She read the article in 2016, and thought it would be interesting to make a film, telling the story from a stripper’s point of view, something that was hardly ever attempted. Linking that with the bonding tale, and the American Dream that became a nightmare, in 2008, she went ahead to pen the script. Inspiration came from sports, crime and journalism genres.

She told one publication, “Strippers are in the service industry. They’re entertainers. I don’t think people connect the dots between what they’re doing for a living and that they are in fact doing something for a living. They’re there to make money. They’re there to pay bills. It’s a job like anything else. You meet some creeps; you meet some nice people. I just felt akin to them in some way; part of my job is often to stand in front of people “doing the dance,” trying to get money to put together a movie.” Talk a lot of frustrated film-maker hopefuls anywhere in the world, and they will all nod in agreement. The kind of empathy wannabe writer-directors have for their brethren is the kind of empathy Scafario shows for her characters. Not once does she glorify their wrongdoings nor does she make us feel that their acts did not deserve to be taken cognisance of by the law, and punishment meted out.

Research and detailing are clearly visible throughout the film. The bonding between Ramona and the tinge of regretful bitterness towards the end are well-brought out. Those who have never been to a strip joint or a sex-club will now have no need to go there to see it themselves, unless, of course, they want the real thing. But then the Internet has made it all so easy to peek into these establishments and their acts that there is no more secrecy or ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome involved in familiarising yourself with the virtual reality of the sleazier side of life.

On the journalism front, we don’t get to see much, since it all seems to be based on simple, recorded, interviews. On the empathy front, we find it hard to identify with the strippers, in spite of Dorothy’s defensive quote, “hurt people hurt people”, since a) they seem to be earning small fortunes almost daily, for months/years on end (Dorothy hands over a wad of notes, not a few odd bills, to her grandmother) and b) it is their chosen profession.

There are so many mammary glands and buttocks on display that one might be tempted to identify the actresses by their anatomical dimensions rather than their monikers. Constance Wu as Dorothy has a Destiny gifted part, a truly meaty role. This waitress and wannabe actress had trained at the Lee Strasberg institute from age 16, was hoping to get a secure job as a speech therapist, when Destiny knocked, and she got assignments that were noticed: the Asian-American sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in last year’s hit rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians. She hardly comes across as oriental, in spite of the obvious features, which usually betray few emotions. Maybe the speech therapy is to be given due credit. Jennifer Lopez makes the most of a part that reveals another side of her personality. At 50, she has a body that would be the envy of any actress, and all the more reason for the mentoring to look credible with 37 year-old Wu. You could not be blamed if you felt that this was a supporting role for the diva, a supporting role that nevertheless will earn her plaudits. Both actresses, and all their co-actors, are compoletely uninhibited.

Powerful support comes from Julia Stiles (Elizabeth), Keke Palmer (stripper), Lili Reinhart (stripper), Lizzo (stripper), Cardi B (stripper), Madeleline Brewer (stripper) and Mercedes Ruehl as the club’s Mama hen (looks like a couple of actresses of yesteryear who would be her age now). No male actors are listed here, to protect their identities!!! 110 minutes do not seem too long in the context of the narrative. Kudos to cinematographer Todd Banhazl and editor Kayla Emter for decent outings.

Remaining true to the ambience and the driving concept, the film is a faithful, or at least apparently faithful, rendition of a true story and its background. It does not rise too much above its self-defined level to enter dizzy cinematic heights.

You will have to be objective, as objective as can be, to see the merits of the human condition in a porn-yarn. Yet a peep into ‘forbidden’ peep-shows, a looksee into the naughty sexy world, is hard-earned. Warning: There are too many breast-strokes and derrière dunks in Hustlers, so if you are offended by nudity and simulated sex/erotica, stay away, and make no ifs and butts about it.

Rating: ***



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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