REVIEW / DRAMA
107 minutes/Opens today/ 2.5 stars
The story: It is the early 2000s and Wall Street types keep New York's strip clubs lively. Destiny (Constance Wu), a stripper and single mother, meets the more experienced Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). The veteran takes Destiny under her wing and together, their careers flourish. But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the crowds vanish. Destiny, Ramona and friends decide to take a more direct route to financial stability. The catch: if caught, they could face jail. Based on a 2015 New York magazine article.
"She's young, gorgeous and Asian, she's a triple threat," says one stripper, referring to Wu's Destiny.
Elsewhere, a crass client - there are no other kinds in this film - calls to her by yelling: "Hey Lucy Liu!" (with the "Liu" sounding like "Looooo").
Destiny (real name Dorothy) and Lopez's Ramona navigate the casual racism and rampant misogyny of New York's strip clubs with a smile because it is where they find their sisterhood with other women who have chosen this line of work.
Director Lorene Scafaria, who also adapted the magazine article about the rule-breaking strippers, pulls away the exteriors to reveal a world where single mothers without much education can make a lot of money. But it is also where they are exploited by a male-dominated culture that treats them with contempt and where a red flag appears on their resumes, rendering other work hard to find.
The film has an unnecessary and intrusive device - in the form of a reporter asking questions, with the story told in flashback. Still, Lopez shines as a performer who declares herself to be the best and then proves it by executing a professional-level, pole-dance routine in front of an awestruck Destiny.
Scafaria specialises in character-driven stories about people breaking out of their rut. In Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008), which Scafaria adapted from a novel, a young man with a broken heart learns to mope less and love more; in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012), which she wrote and directed, a global catastrophe forces a man in a bad marriage to take romantic risks.
In this movie, the breaking bad moment for the strippers happens when the 2008 financial crisis strikes, drying up the river of money that flowed into the clubs from the trading floors and banks.
After a strong first third of the film documenting strip-club culture, Scafaria clamps a good-versus-evil dynamic around the story, squeezing the life out of it. "Wall Street stole from us and not one of them went to jail. The game is rigged," says one angry woman.
In rapid-fire scenes that mimic the rhythms of a heist movie, the victims turn the tables on their business-suited oppressors, followed by scenes where the takings flow to beaming parents and adorable children. It feels dumbed-down, as if there was a fear that the audience would turn against these charismatic characters simply because they carried out real crimes.
The strippers - and audiences - deserve a better, more shaded picture.