Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
The perfect crime is one committed without the inclusion of a single person, not even yourself. We ruin everything. The plan may be solid, the math might add up, and the logic sound, but the moment humanity enters the equation, a timebomb to implosion is set. We’re not numbers. We’re blood and desire. Plots and schemes stem from confidence, but they will always falter to doubt, and once that worm crawls inside, we’re doomed. If we can’t trust ourself, we sure as hell can’t trust other people.
You know the drill. You’ve seen enough of these movies. It’s all fun and games until your cokehead friend gets arrested. Hustlers joins a long list of rags to riches to jail cell cinema but manages to have more fun than most before the gavel drops. Tagged at the start with the usual “Based on a True Story” title card, the film snatches its inspiration from Jessica Pressler‘s New York magazine expose on a group of strippers, who in 2008 lured wealthy Wall Street muckety mucks into handing over their wallets using an effective cocktail of MDMA and ketamine. The women robbed the schmucks blind and lived in the lap of luxury until their arrest in 2014.
↓Spoilers for Hustlers↓
The method of peeling credit cards from rubes seen in the film is not much different from what is depicted in Pressler’s article. One of their team would venture out into a topline bar and “fish” for an appropriately wealthy chump. She would flirt the egos of their prey to mush before the rest of her “sisters” would arrive and distract the dope while someone laced his drink. The combination of MDMA and ketamine ignites an extreme sense of pleasure in the user while also dropping a veil over their memory. The next morning would prove hazy for the “victim” as they lacked the details of their exploits; having no one to blame but themselves.
At the center of Hustlers are Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu). They have a mentor/student vibe going for them, but such relationships are not built to last. As they procure more and more wealth from siphoning rich buffoons, Destiny feels a pang of guilt. She empathizes with a few of the slobbering dolts whereas Ramona only wants to crank their tactics to eleven. To do that, they need more enforcers, and more enforcers mean more variability.
Ramona invites Dawn (Madeline Brewer) into her fold. She contains a severe enthusiasm for the crime, and a cocaine addiction removes any sense of subtlety from her tactics. They’re taking some clients for $50,000 and at least one mogul for $150,000. Shame means little in the face of bankruptcy and ruination. Dudes start talking. The cops are notified, and Dawn is the first one picked up. Wires and stings are organized, and it’s only a matter of time before the five-0 knock on Ramona and Destiny’s doorsteps.
Most of the facts behind Hustlers fall in line with Pressler’s article, but like Dragnet, the names have been changed to protect the innocent…and litigious. Ramona is Samantha Barbash aka Samantha Foxx. Destiny is Roselyn Keo. Both women were earning significant livings on the pole before the financial crash of 2008, and when the scene deteriorated, they turned to more creative and illegal means of separating businessmen from their cash. Much of Destiny’s motivation is tied to her grandmother, but according to a Vulture inquiry conducting earlier this year, Keo’s grandmother died when she was a teenager. Hustlers uses a lot of shorthand to attract an audience’s support to their cause.
Samantha Barbash was most certainly the ringleader of the gang and like Ramona happily parted her wisdom to younger girls joining the club. For a price. She started stripping at 19, but by 2008 she was into her thirties and an old maid by the standards of her profession. Pressler compares her physical features with a trilogy of head-turning pop-culture goddesses. She’s a mixture of Jessica Rabbit, Angelina Jolie, and Cleopatra, but “buried within this ultrafeminine package was a mercenary streak worthy of Gordon Gekko.” Unlike Keo’s grandmother, Barbash’s child is real (though she had more than one) but never named in the article and does not seem to be the driving force behind her actions.
Keo fell in line with Barbash’s fishing methods, but their relationship does not align with the cinematic BFFs. Destiny’s bit of dialogue comparing their partnership to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal is straight from Pressler’s story, but Barbash and Keo were not emotionally invested in each other’s wellbeing. They were partners, not family.
After the Hustlers are arrested, Destiny is the first to cop a plea. Ramona is furious but incredibly understanding. Neither women do jail time while a few of their associates serve short sentences. Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), the journalist stand-in for Pressler, encourages Destiny to reach out to Ramona because she sees a deep love between the two women. No hard feelings. Years after their arrest, Barbash and Keo have not spoken to each other. There is no love lost.
That’s all well and good; we know how movies work, and we know how they’re designed to heighten emotion over reality. I hear ya. What everyone really wants to know about is Usher. Did he ever show up to the club throwing stacks of cash into the air while steering every eye in the club to his direction? Sorry to break it to you, but Usher’s cameo in Hustlers is a total fabrication.
Well, kinda. The artist’s appearance at the Moves gentlemen’s club spins out of his stripper exploits as detailed in a New York Post article from 2008. Apparently, whenever he hit the scene, the girls would line up in a row and he would select them like he was eyeing a steak. He may never have come in contact with the Hustlers, but the cameo is certainly ripped from his real-world fantasies and speaks to the absurd amounts of money the rich are willing to toss to feel the warmth of flesh.