Asked whether she believed True Jackson to have been a better veep than Dick Cheney, the 26-year-old looked down at the provided photograph of Cheney with a bewildered expression on her face.
“Who the hell is … Ooh, y’all are really testing me on some stuff that I … I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous. I don’t know who this man is,” she said. “I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.” (She was determined to be telling the truth.)
The video snippet is the perfect meme for many reasons, the pliability of “this man” — Palmer could just as easily have been referring to an ex-boyfriend — and the surreal notion of living a life void of any knowledge of Cheney’s existence among them. It’s also the ideal mind-set with which to enter the world of “Hustlers,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a New York magazine article about dancers at a Manhattan strip club who scam Wall Street types following the 2008 financial crisis.
The film, also slightly apologetic but largely indifferent toward the fate of its male characters, attracted critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival. Steering clear of the leering gaze through which strippers have often been portrayed, Scafaria depicts them with respect and admiration, maintaining an authentic environment while empowering them to take control of their own sexuality.
Scafaria recently told New York magazine that she remained in constant communication with the all-female ensemble, led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, about their level of comfort with each scene. She hired Jacqueline Frances (a.k.a. Jacq the Stripper) as a “comfort consultant” — akin to an “intimacy coordinator” — and worked with choreographer Johanna Sapakie on the strip club routines.
“If we’re focused on someone’s body in these scenes, it’s because they want us to be,” Scafaria said. “It’s a bit of a Trojan horse, that way, the movie. It toys with the male gaze, the same way strippers might toy with it.”
No scene elucidates this better than Lopez’s jaw-dropping introduction, in which her character, a veteran pole dancer named Ramona, performs a two-minute routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” It’s increasingly clear that, while surrounded by men with mouths agape and hands that couldn’t possibly throw dollar bills at her any faster, Ramona owns the room. She shows the skin she wants to show, moves the way she wants to move. The director underscores this confidence throughout the film by, as The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote in her review, “training her camera on women’s naked bodies with a refreshing sense of playfulness and celebration rather than a predatory leer.”
Ramona takes a younger dancer, Destiny (Wu), under her wing — and, at one point, into her luxurious fur coat — with a similarly assured boldness. Together, they make a pair of everyday Americans who aim to get back at the system that has continually beaten them down, as well as at the people who caused and perpetuate that injustice. The scam begins as a way for them to pay rent and provide for their young daughters, though it eventually escalates into a more dangerous one where the women, along with a couple others (Palmer and Lili Reinhart), drug wealthy men and rack up their credit card charges.
Scafaria doesn’t necessarily condone this behavior, but she sympathizes with the reasoning behind it. At the heart of the film is a complex story about female friendship, about two women doing their best to look out for one another. Perhaps needless to say, given the ensemble, it aces the Bechdel test, which is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and measures whether two women converse on-screen about something other than a man. The hustlers’ targets do figure into many of the conversations, but their gender is inconsequential. The issue here is the immoral way in which those men earn money.
“Hustlers” had to overcome obstacles as severe as getting dropped by its studio, Annapurna Pictures, on its journey to success, which it has undeniably achieved — not only did it earn an 88 percent “fresh” score with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but it outperformed box-office expectations by earning $33.2 million over its debut weekend. (Two-thirds of theatergoers were women.) That’s the best-ever opening for an STX film.
None of this is to say that a male director couldn’t have achieved something similar, but it’s worth noting that Scafaria and other female producers had to fight to keep their vision for the film intact. Producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas told New York magazine that while some male studio executives were fine with how men treated women in, say, “The Wolf of Wall Street” — directed by Martin Scorsese, who passed on “Hustlers” — they were “a little uncomfortable” with a flipped premise.
“Everybody could see the commercial value of this movie, but they were like, ‘Can they just drug the bad guys? Can they just do it to the people that deserve it?’” she said. “By the way, does anyone deserve to be drugged? No! … It was just dancing for a group of men and explaining to them, 'Yes, the women do drug the guys, and no, they’re not all bad guys, and yes, they do bad things.”
If its opening weekend is any indication, “Hustlers” might become the latest female-led film to soar at the box office. That wouldn’t make it an exception to any rule — a study released in December by Creative Arts Agency and tech company Shift7 found that, between January 2014 and December 2017, female-led movies actually outperformed their male-led counterparts worldwide.
As Palmer might say, sorry to those men!
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