This true life story is inspired by an article in New York magazine written by journalist Jessica Pressler and played in the film by Julia Styles as a character called Elizabeth.
Set perhaps appropriately in view of its subject in the noughties, Destiny (Constance Wu) is working as a stripper/pole dancer in a club and not doing too well. The clients are sleaze bags and by the time the manager and various other sharks have taken a cut from her wages, the money ain’t too good. Until that is she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who has got this whole scene taped.
Lopez makes a sensational first appearance in an act which is a blatant and powerful demonstration of a woman, who is both proud and totally in control of her sexuality and its effect on her audience – evidenced by the way they shower her with bank notes. Ramona takes a shine to Destiny, shelters her under her wing by bringing her into the act in a smouldering girl on girl routine and the money rolls in for both of them.
Until that is come the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Destiny gets pregnant, splits with her partner and now, with a child to support as well as her ailing granny, tries to get back into the circuit. But the big spending Wall Street guys are no longer flashing their cash in the same way. Once more Ramona comes to her rescue with a scheme this time to part these still rich guys from their money by feigning sexual interest, drugging them and then using their credit cards to buy some of life’s goodies. After all, she argues, they’re the ones responsible for the crash but they weren’t the ones who suffered, so it’s not really stealing, is it?
It’s a good story making a strong if somewhat morally dubious feminist argument and written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, who made her feature film debut with the delightful Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2102). But it somehow doesn’t quite hold together.
The women, who also include Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart as two more stripper/con women, who join the gang, are all stunningly beautiful and Lopez, who proudly acknowledges that she celebrated her 50th birthday this year, has an amazing body, a charismatic screen presence and has also been demonstrating her brain power with her clever promotion of the film, which she also produced. And while we’re talking “elders’ power”, there’s a lovely performance from 75 year old Wai Ching Ho as Destiny’s granny, who joins in the proceedings with a wicked sense of fun. The film also looks good with an abundance of designer stuff on show for those who like that sort of thing
The story telling though tends to meander rather and lacks shape and focus. What might have helped to sharpen it up would have been to make more use of Stiles’ character of the journalist, who is sadly underused and undercharacterised. She pops up comparatively late in the film in scenes where she’s interviewing Destiny, but her role isn’t really integrated into the story telling, whereas it could have provided a much needed spine.
However the film passes the Bechdel test with knobs on. Any conversations about men are almost exclusively about how to fleece them. The male characters are pretty much all gormless idiots being led by their lusts. The only one to gain our sympathy is one unfortunate victim who isn’t rolling in dough and can’t pay his mortgage as a result of the women’s scam.
And despite its drawbacks it’s good to see a crime movie, which is female led Ocean’s Eight style and which depicts strippers as the smart protagonists rather than mere decorative sex objects.