What would have happened if I’d been assigned to review Hustlers, the new film by director Lorene Scafaria, back when I worked as a film critic for Christianity Today?

Hustlers is, after all, about as “worldly” as movies get. It’s a movie about strippers. And it’s even more R-rated than that — these strippers are fed up with being exploited and abused, so they strike back by drugging and robbing their wealthy and powerful clients. There’s enough nudity, profanity, violence, drug use, and drunkenness on display to traumatize many of the churchgoers I grew up with — to say nothing of the lying, the cheating, the stealing, the vanity, the greed, and so many other kinds of sinful behavior.

Money changes everything for these scheming Hustlers.

It’s been several years since I reviewed movies for that magazine and website. But I can guess how it might have played out.

OPTION ONE: Based on my decade of experience writing for Christianity Today‘s readers, I can be certain that some wouldn’t have read the review at all. Some would have gone straight to that oh-so-Christian ministry of writing rage mail, condemning me for “supporting” such a “worldly” movie. They would tell me (and often did) that I was going to hell simply for walking into the cineplex to see an R-rated film. After all, what’s the difference between paying money to go to a strip club and paying money to watch a movie about what happens in one?

OPTION TWO: If I were to criticize Hustlers showing us what really goes on in the world of “gentlemen’s clubs” — a world of glamour, pornography, drugs, booze, and sexual abuse — some would be pleased to see me confirming what they had suspected, and applaud me for warning moviegoers away from it. I encountered those readers regularly.

OPTION THREE: If I were to praise the film for being truthful about the consequences of bad behavior, some Christian readers would applaud. These would be readers who appreciate that art can be about evil without condoning or promoting evil. They would be readers who point to the Bible itself as a collection of truthful stories about appalling human behavior, readers who know that Context Matters. A movie about the destructive influence of drugs is not the same thing as an invitation to take drugs, right? I encountered and corresponded with many readers like this as well during my years of writing weekly reviews.

Hustlers introduces a different kind of Robin Hood: one who steals from the rich in order to … join the rich?

I’m not writing for Christianity Today right now — my new career in higher education is too demanding for me to manage a regularly writing gig. But I’m still nervous about reviewing Hustlers. Why? Because I still hear from readers — all kinds of them — and because some of those readers are now my students.

So, why am I reviewing Hustlers? Why did I even bother to see it?

The cast did not appeal to me. Sure, Constance Wu was charming in Crazy Rich Asians. But that’s not enough to make me buy movie tickets. Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight is one of my favorite films, and Jennifer Lopez was fantastic in it — but that movie came out a long, long time ago, and Lopez’s projects since then have made me more inclined to avoid her films than rush out to see them.

I went to see Hustlers for several reasons: First, it inspired enthusiasm among many critics I find respectable, and they praised it as a surprisingly well-crafted work of art by women and about women. I’m particularly interested in finding and celebrating great movies made by women considering how difficult it is for a woman to succeed in this industry. Second, many heralded this as the second great performance by Lopez in a movie, and I wanted to believe them. Third, I heard them comparing Scafaria’s movie about wealth, power, crime, and consequences with Martin Scorsese’s best movies about the same thing. As a great admirer of many Scorsese films — man oh man, when I reviewed The Wolf of Wall Street, the rage mail came pouring in — I found these reports encouraging.

And here’s my report:

With extraordinary skill, style, and polish, Scafaria has crafted a flashy crowdpleaser. Hustlers is a fireworks show of light, color, music, humor, drama, and energy. It adapts an article by journalist Jessica Pressler published in New York magazine into a movie that, with a clever and propulsive pop soundtrack that uses era-defining hits (like Fiona Apple’s “Criminal) to time-stamp specific chapters, feels a lot like a musical.

There is no friendship like the friendship between a lap-dancing virtuoso (Jennifer Lopez) and her awestruck apprentice (Constance Wu).

The story it tells is as impressive for the audacity of its protagonists and it is almost irresistibly lurid. We follow a community of lap-dancing strippers — the aspiring novice named Destiny (Constance Wu) and the flamboyant fortune-hunting pro called Ramona, among others — through training exercises (in dancing and in tricking money out of rich clients), testimony times (about the ways they’ve been exploited), moral support sessions, financial hardships, and horrible nights in which abusers got the upper hand. And then, when the recession turns their world upside down and forces them into a far more vulnerable and even life-threatening position, they make a new plan: They will bait, drug, and steal from their wealthiest clients.

The first act of this movie is crafted to make us fall in love with these women. We’re meant to stand in awe of their abilities, to admire their camaraderie, and to cheer for their dances, even as we’re also meant to revile the men who are throwing money at them and abusing them behind closed doors. Okay — so they didn’t grow up dreaming of this business. But good for them, that they are learning to turn their misfortunes into opportunities! How clever of them to exploit weaknesses of their wealthy clients, and to turn the tables, gain the advantage, and make a fortune, so they can not only pay their bills but work their way up to living like millionaires.

The backbone of the narrative is the relationship between Destiny and Ramona — Destiny, the admiring apprentice who needs money to raise her daughter, and Ramona, the consummate professional who launches a criminal enterprise against the crooks who have sought to reduce her to sex slavery. Will these two women, who have such powerful chemistry and obvious affection for one another, turn against one another when their crime spree inevitably spins out of control?

I can imagine a big-screen version of this story that chooses the path of truthfulness — one that impresses upon us the desperation of women in this business, the cost of the choices they make as they climb from poverty toward success, the ugliness of the men who pay for this kind of “entertainment,” and the wages of the sins that the dancers commit in order to fight back against the sins of their abusers. In fact, last year gave us a movie that did this very well: Support the Girls.

But this is not that movie.

Destiny (Constance Wu) is learning that a career in a strip club comes with a certain level of exploitation. But she’s not going to take it. No. She’s not gonna take it.

The performances are decent, but I can’t say I was convinced by any of them. These looked like glamorous movie stars playing glamorous roles, and scene by scene the movie seemed too carefully calibrated for entertainment for this to ever feel like a credible depiction of What Really Happened.

The strip-club dancing sequences — the main attraction in the film’s advertising — deliver impressive exhibitions of athleticism, sure. (NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour team enthused about a behind-the-scenes video about Lopez’s travails in learning to pole dance.) And yet, while I agree with critics who have observed that Scafaria’s cameras are not driven by “the male gaze,” these sequences are still aiming to astonish us with the sex appeal of the performers. For all of Hustlers’ emphasis on women striking back at the men who abuse them, the movie is still more likely to attract men to strip clubs than to repel them.

There’s a duplicitous nature to Lopez’s performance in particular. This performance is, after all, just an extension of the persona she’s developed as a pop star. Embracing the Madonna template, she’s made a career of cultivating herself as a sex object in her music, her videos, her fashion, her public appearances, and her advertising contracts. It’s not any kind of leap to see her move from that to playing a blockbuster lap-dancer. So, Oscar buzz? I don’t get it. Is she carefully cultivating a complicated character onscreen, or does she just happen to fit this character description?

As for those comparisons to Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street — well, okay… this is a movie about fortunes made, financial calamity, the Recession, and the players who caused it and plotted nefarious ways to survive it. And Scafaria is obviously employing a lot of familiar filmmaking tactics to represent extravagant wealth, juggernaut talents, and disastrous falls.

Pole dancing is serious exercise — that’s one lesson of this film that I dare anyone to deny.

But those were films aimed at satirizing the shenanigans in question. They were movies that appealed to a voice of conscience: they hoped we would watch these circuses of con men and gullible targets, and then back away in dismay, wanting nothing to do with such a system, eager to wash our hands of any way in which we’ve unwittingly contributed to the evils on display. In their satire, there was an element of the tragic, of deep loss, for those who might actually believe in America’s noble ideals.

Here, the depiction of heartless, headless men is revolting — and rightfully so! But Hustlers wants us to cheer for women who, exploited and harmed, turn not toward a higher road, but instead go low when rich guys go low, seeking to beat them at their own game. And their motivation isn’t righteousness or justice — it’s money. We’re meant to feel giddy as they pop the champagne on their successful crime sprees. This is a movie built on electrifying us with the cheap thrill of revenge, and dazzling us with materialistic rewards. The imaginations enlivening this spectacle aren’t insightful enough to question the part that these women are playing in reinforcing the very system that exploits them. In fact, Hustlers seems as excited about Ramona’s qualifications as bait for lustful wolves as it is about shaming the wolves for taking the bait she so enthusiastically dangles in front of them. Out of one side of Hustlers’ mouth, we hear “Men who frequent strip clubs are monsters and creeps,” and out of the other side, “These dancers are goddesses, and isn’t it a shame that they got caught when they deserved to make a fortune?”

The film’s final word is entirely cynical. Ramona gets to drop this wisdom on us: “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” (Yeah, this is one of those movies in which the last line is “the moral of the story,” in case we missed it, so we can feel smug on our way out.) Hustlers never questions whether there is any other response to corruption but to join in and game the system for the sake of survival.

Destiny learns that there’s more than sexual exploitation in stripping—it’s also hard to get rich doing it.

I don’t approach films about this kind of subject lightly; I see the destructive effects of the objectification and hyper-sexualization of women every day. I see it in the social contracts presented to my female undergraduate students: they can either surrender (and suffer) or resist (and suffer). I hear it in the way men on sports radio talk about women — particularly their wives or girlfriends. I cringe at the evidence of it in advertising.

So I had hoped that, as some of the buzz promised, this movie might feel countercultural, conscientious, even revolutionary.

But, contrary to the hype, no — this is a million miles from the vision and integrity of a film like Support the Girls. This movie knows full well just how much audiences will throw money at big names who do this dance.


P.S.

One last note about those evangelical Christian readers who would have responded to this review by writing rage mail:

As I think back about those who used to condemn me as “an agent of the devil” or as “selling out to The World” for paying attention to a movie about “the underworld,” I cannot help but observe how much of that condemnation came from the very community that then turned around, listened to, voted for, and now continue to support our current President. This is a man who loved strip-club culture — famously and publicly. A man who paid money to have sex with porn stars, and spent even more money trying to cover up that fact. A man who continues to speak derisively about women. Who has bragged about committing sexual assault. Movies about men like him, they say, are obscene. But the man himself — unrepentant, boastful, hateful? They exalt him.

It makes me wonder if they have ever read the Bible they seem so eager to throw at me.

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