Though largely centred on the seedy strip-clubs and glamorous lives our lead-characters inhabit, Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers is a film less about the strippers working its poles (someone, somewhere, just sighed out of disappointment) and more-so about the friendship that ties them together.
Indeed, where another movie would sexualise these characters until they have the appeal of a manky-shoe, Scafaria's precise and respectful eye keeps them grounded as actual people (again, someone, somewhere, is very disappointed).
And it is with this seemingly-menial distinction that Hustlers stands-tall - as while ample cliches are sprinkled throughout and the character morals, shall-we-say?, teeter far-past nonexistent (to be mild): the enamouring, grounded-in-reality, cast redeem it past its faults.
The characters are never likeable, but considering that the cooky-escapades we follow them on focus, predominantly, on drugging, robbing and sometimes-nearly-killing a bunch of rich-dudes (because what else do you do with your Saturday night?) ... making them even remotely-redeemable is rather impressive.
And yet, I'll reiterate: neither the stripping nor the drugging nor the robbin' (nor any demonic mix of the three) is the point. The point, here, is the friendship between the strippers, and the empowerment that it brings them.
I do take great issue with how it almost fetishises these crimes (well, they face consequences at the end: but if Tony Montana got a little jail-time at the end of Scarface, does that cleans him of all sin? No? Correct!), but the stellar performances (most notably Constance Wu and the absolutely scene-stealing, Stripper-in-Chief, Jennifer Lopez) and surprisingly heartfelt characterisation, again, make the dynamics strong enough to carry the film.
It's appropriately funny and surprisingly tragic, with some emotional beats later on that - although you can predict them with a blindfold on - really hit hard. I didn't exactly cry, but for a movie about strippers drugging bankers... being moved wasn't, going in, something I had expected - which goes double for the fact my expectation was for two-hours of sex-things... and this, uh, isn't that. At. All.
But with equal measure: it can also disturb you. This happens on a premise-level, where you realise the almost militia-like gang of attractive-women that usually approach you on a Saturday night may have ulterior motives (oh wow, shocker!); as well as on a "your-body-shrivels-like-a-raisin' level, wherein the mere mention of an architect having "strong hands" takes on a whole new meaning of "oh no, oh no, oh no".
But ultimately: it's still about friendship. The comedy is comedic, the tragedy tragic and the sick, twisted perversions of Satan, well, Satanic: but the bond reigns supreme. And while this bond is forged over a fire of drugs and theft... it's still a bond. While watching Hustlers, you realise it is a tragedy. The glossy exterior, sassy performances and scene in which strippers analyse another stripper's "dancing" technique (let's just say, it wasn't exactly a waltz) may try to fool you otherwise; but that's the beauty of it.
It's a film that hits you hard at the last minute. It has perfectly-enjoyable and almost gaudy empowerment as its shell, but there is actual power at its core. In one sense it's a very basic rags-to-riches story; and in another, it is the classic bedtime (maybe not for kids, though) story of a stripper with a heart-of-gold.
But in a third, more prominent, sense: it's a commanding odyssey about companionship, amity and bond. And while I may disagree with the broad ideas that romanticise crime: that fundamental one is damn-near impeccable.