Jennifer Lopez gives a near Oscar-worthy performance, seriously, in the unexpected delight Hustlers, a soulful glimpse into the American money machine so brutally portrayed in The Big Sick but this is The Big Sick in stilettos and it's a film you're not going to mind watching over and over again.
Lopez is seriously mesmerizing here as Ramona, a sort of mama bear turned matriarch in the strip club hierarchy that guides life in the pre-Wall Street collapse years of the early new millennium. Based upon Jessica Pressler's New York article "The Hustlers at Scores," Hustlers follows Ramona, Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and others as they ride the high times of the economic boom of the early 2000s before the 2008 recession that left everyone trying to figure out how to survive.
It's a grimy world, Todd Banhazi's neon-tinged lensing practically pole dancing with Jane Musky's urban industrial production design and a pulsating soundtrack that drives every ostentatious heartbeat the film has to offer.
Hustlers is simply hypnotic to watch, a primal heart beating inside its "Doesn't money make you horny?" world where you don't get to claim innocence whether you're at the bottom trying to climb up or at the top trying to stay there.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers seems almost too absurd to be true but true it is, a story of a small group of women who decide to become victors instead of victims of a world that celebrates their sexuality by exploiting it. By the time Ramona practically purrs "Come on, climb in my fur" to struggling club newbie Destiny, she's already won us over with the kind of simmering mix of sexy meets sentimental that guys fantasize about and pay big bucks for inside the hidden walls of private rooms most of the general public never sees or even knows about in strip joints across America.
While the story in Hustlers is undeniably centered around Wu's Destiny, rest assured that Hustlers is unquestionably the Ramona show, Lopez entering the first scene with such dominance that she draws you in and she never lets you go. Lopez hasn't been this good in years, mostly because Hollywood has always struggled to know what to do with her and has seldom offered her the chance to truly act. Amidst all this industrial glam, Lopez is sisterhood personified, a fiercely loyal sister with an occasional short temper who's older than most of the other dancers but also a much better dancer.
Scafaria's script is rather brilliant, at least until it whimpers a bit toward the end. She avoids strip club stereotypes with only occasional glimpses of the raging excesses of the $100 bill-waving financial goons who practically masturbate with their money and for whom money isn't just about "stuff" but about control. While the women live in the world, they're just guests and they know it. As long as they're useful, they're welcome. Once they're not useful, they're not welcome.
They know that, too.
Hustlers could have succeeded if it had only been about this world, though the odds are it would have fallen short of the something special needed by struggling boutique production house Annapurna. However, Hustlers isn't just about this world and that's why it's so completely and utterly fabulous. Oh sure, there's an empowerment message here and it's strong and vibrant and undeniable. At its core, however, Hustlers is about sisterhood and friendship and the kinds of relationships between women that are seldom seen on the big screen. Lopez's Ramona could have easily been a caricature, a preening diva of sorts with a penchant for the good life and a willingness to use her sexuality to get it.
That's not Lopez's Ramona.
By the time Wall Street collapses in 2008 and the big money horndogs stop showing up en masse, it's already established that Ramona is smart enough to figure all this out and she's guided by something resembling a moral fiber even in a world every stakeholder, these women included, is more than a little bit corrupt. Scafaria's script never flinches. There are no innocents here, yet neither are there any of the usual dime-store cinematic baddies. Hustlers spends enough time making sure that we understand that these women are living in a world of dehumanizing exploitation, an exhausting world that uses them up unapologetically. So, by the time the women turn into a sort of g-string mafia determined to turn the tables it's with a not so perverted glee that we watch it all unfold.
Lopez makes the shift in her character's emotional arc convincingly, not quite a Gordon Gekko-lite, a "Greed is sorta good," but in reality it's sisterhood that's better and relentlessly exploiting all the exploiters isn't so much justified as it is understood and merely observed. Constance Wu's Destiny is convincingly seduced by the physicality of Ramona's emotional swagger, her almost cult-like devotion practically falling down at the altar that is Jennifer Lopez.
Can I get an amen?
Hustlers also features wonderful performances by Keke Palmer and a lightly humorous Lili Reinhart, while extended cameos by Cardi B and Lizzo are an absolute delight. While there are modest romantic references here, rest assured that Scafaria keeps Hustlers focused on the sisterhood and the film's major thrusts of intimacy are between Ramona and Destiny and anyone else trusted enough to be invited into their world. Scafaria avoids lazy moralizing, instead trusting her audience to understand the story and its dynamics.
With Will Ferrell as one of the film's producers, you could reasonably expect Hustlers to turn into a goofy comedy. Fortunately, it never does. The humor, when present, is light yet substantial and fits within the story. Julia Stiles gives the film a quiet depth as a journalist, while Steven Boyer has a relatively brief yet heartbreaking scene toward the film's end.
Hustlers may very well end up being the box-office hit that Annapurna desperately needs, both a critical darling and box-office success not being out of reach for a film that dazzles in ways you never expect yet leaves you thinking and feeling and more than a little horny at the same time. While I don't quite expect Lopez to creep into the Oscar race, Hustlers is a career-definer that will most assuredly be mentioned come awards season.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic