The ’90s saw a strange sub-genre of mainstream stripper movies. Most famously, 1995’s cult disaster, Showgirls, and the following year’s Striptease, starring Demi Moore. Each of these films played out as a saga of the main character and her rise and fall in the seedy world of adult entertainment. At the center of both of these are women who grow even stronger through their journey, while learning a lot about themselves and the world in the process. 1998’s The Players Club is no different.
Beginning in medias res, we’re shown our protagonist, Diana (LisaRaye) as she walks through the rubble of a burned down strip joint called the Players Club. She explains that she started working there after having a fight with her father about which college she should attend, ultimately moving out of her parents’ house. Shortly after, she got pregnant and was lured into the job by two dancers, Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson) and Tricks (Adele Givens), who turn out to be terrible influences.
The club is owned by Dollar Bill (Bernie Mac), a shady businessman who is being hunted down by loan sharks for the duration of the movie. Mac is an extraordinary character in everything he’s in, and is true to form here. He’s unhinged and no matter what he says, he delivers it perfectly with his trademark mumble.
Throughout the film we see an array of characters and collect their individual stories and anecdotes along the way. There’s L’il Man (Anthony Johnson), the spunky doorman who is constantly harassed by the loan sharks when he covers up for Dollar Bill’s absence.
And most notably, there’s Blue (Jamie Foxx), the DJ at the club, and a love interest for Diana–who now goes by Diamond. Foxx and LisaRaye are the two grounding forces in the movie amidst the controlled chaos surrounding them.
Events throughout the story build up to a big finish. But instead of following a natural trajectory, we get a bunch of bizarrely coincidental scenarios all crammed into a short period, where at times it feels a little forced. Evident by an extremely intense scene towards the end with no believable motive by the culprit involved. In fact, it’s somewhat odd that an inherently sleazy film doesn’t truly get gratuitously dark until the final act, and in such an inorganic way.
The Players Club is a comedy first and a drama second. But the drama mostly plays off as intensity rather than sap. LisaRaye is likable and does a decent job as Diamond, but can’t seem to handle the few emotional moments required of her. There’s a mantra this movie likes to repeat: “Make the money; Don’t let it make you.” You can tell the filmmakers love this quote, but honestly it’s not a phrase that sounds realistic enough when said in everyday conversation–which is the only way this movie knows how to execute it. So maybe the problem is the script’s inability to handle the few emotional moments.
Luckily those instances are few and far between. The film does have some deep things to say about the lifestyle of an exotic dancer and the sketchy world of gentlemen’s clubs, but it really doesn’t try too hard to manufacture empathy from its audience. Instead, it shows a frank depiction of an unfortunate dilemma that many women face. At its best, The Players Club simply lets the story tell itself.
The narrative isn’t as streamlined as it appears–which is refreshing, though it doesn’t prevent any foreshadowing. The movie mostly tells the saga through its setting, utilizing a character in the story as a device in which to do so. Written and directed by Ice Cube (in his only directorial feature), it’s a solid followup to his screenwriting debut, Friday, though you can tell he doesn’t stray far from that same stream-of-conscious style of storytelling–for better or worse.