Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers (Photo: STX)
(SUMMER MOVIE WRAP 2019: Best Film, Biggest Disappointment, Top Moneymakers, Worst Remake, and more! For a look at the highlights and low points of the cinema season, go here.)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Lorene Scafaria
STARS Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez
With Hustlers, Constance Wu goes from starring in a movie about crazy rich Asians and those who hope to emulate them to starring in a movie about crazy rich Caucasians and those who hope to fleece them.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, whose first two pictures (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler) were both woefully underrated and scarcely seen, here takes a New York magazine article (“The Hustlers at Scores”) and uses it as the template for an entertaining if not especially piercing look at a gang of strippers who survive the financial crisis of 2008 by making some of those who caused it pay dearly.
Jessica Presley, who wrote the New York article, appears on-screen in the form of Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a journalist who interviews a former stripper named Dorothy (Wu) who was part of the scam. As Dorothy (stage name Destiny) relates it, she was working as a stripper at a trendy NYC nightclub when she became friends with Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran stripper so popular with the clientele that men can’t help but lob dollar bills at her whenever she gyrates on the stage or pirouettes on the pole. Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing and they soon become inseparable not only as co-workers (double the pleasure for the drooling men means double the money being forked over) but as friends away from the club. Most of their patrons are Wall Street fat cats who can afford to pay big bucks, and everyone is happy and making money until the crisis blindsides the nation.
The situation has drastically changed, with the nightclubs now empty of clients and the strippers forced to seek other jobs (they’re replaced by Russian models who, unlike the dancers, have no problem providing blowjobs for $300 a pop). Dorothy, who now also has a daughter (the father is a wanna-be punk who eventually splits the scene), tries to land a retail job but is rebuffed at every turn. Desperate, she reconnects with Ramona, and the two devise a plan that will allow them to bilk the Wall Street scumbags — at least those still awash in dough — of their easy-earned wealth.
Hustlers is at heart a standard underdog story, only with a strip club as its setting rather than a baseball diamond or a boxing ring. It’s not hard to root for these women as they cheat the heinous men who destroyed lives and got away with it, but while Dorothy is a wholly sympathetic protagonist, the movie clouds the waters with Ramona. As played by Lopez in her best performance arguably since Bill Clinton was in office, she’s a fierce and dynamic figure — basically the she-wolf of Wall Street, happy to devour those she deems beneath her.
As is often the case, an innocent person ultimately gets hurt by the scheme, and the differing reactions by Dorothy and Ramona provide the film with its necessary moral ambiguity. Their friendship (and fallout) is the backbone of the movie, with their cohorts in crime (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) painted only in broad strokes. A late addition to the team, a firecracker junkie played by The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer, initially seems to serve only as a driving wedge between Ramona (who adores the girl) and Dorothy (who’s wary of her) but ultimately helps jump-start the crew’s downfall.
Following the excellent Widows and the lamentable The Kitchen, Hustlers is the third film in less than a year to focus on a group of women who are expected to fend for themselves when the men mess up and leave them holding the empty bag. Yet while the other two pictures were more specific in their circumstances and milieu, Hustlers feels more universal in its outreach, given the far-flung effects of the financial crisis. In this sense, it isn’t just a movie representing women but also a movie representing Everyman, a balm for all those who take solace in seeing someone successfully soak the rich.