Jennifer Lopez struts onto the main stage of a cavernous strip club in “Hustlers” to the blaring tune of Fiona Apple’s late ‘90s anthem “Criminal”. The first line of which, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” suggests the knowing, playful tease to come.
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in the real-life story of New York strippers going after more than one-dollar tips.
“Hustlers,” a semisweet. Half-flat cocktail of expose flesh, fuzzy feminism and high-spirite criminality, overflows with of-the-moment pop-cultural signifiers — Cardi B makes an appearance. And Lizzo does, too — but it also strikes a note of nostalgia for the recent past. Specifically the movie, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), looks back fondly at 2007. Back then, before the financial crisis interrupte the fun. Wall Street guys were making a lot of money, a decent amount of which found its way into the hands and under the G-strings of New York strippers.
As the movie tells it
The high point of this era — remember as “the last great night” by one of the participants — arrives. When the R&B idol Usher (playing himself) rolls into the club. Where the main characters work, sending dollar bills raining down on the delight dancers. The scene is a slow-motion bacchanal, a tableau of pure glamour and delight, a snapshot of carnal-capitalist utopia. It softens some of the struggle and sleaze that we’ve already witnesse, and justifies the entrepreneurial larceny to come.
Seeing Lopez’s best screen work since her early heyday of “Selena” and “Out of Sight”. It isn’t the only reason to check out writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama, but it’s a huge draw. In telling the true story of a group of strippers who lured, drugged and fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clients out of millions. “Hustlers” as a whole is a blast, stomping and striding with the confidence of Lopez’s thrilling introduction.
Scafaria leans a bit too heavily into classic Scorsese filmmaking tactics:
The matter-of-fact narration describing the scam, her use of slow motion and zooms to heighten the emotion of a moment. The pop, rock and R&B soundtrack ranging from Janet Jackson and Britney Spears to Bob Seger and The Four Seasons, with Chopin sprinkle throughout. (Her long, opening tracking shot—from a dressing room, through a hallway, onto the stage, down the stairs and out into the crowd—does provide an impressive, immersive entrée to this realm.).
And perhaps we get one or two montages too many of the high-end shopping and lavish lifestyle these ladies enjoy with their ill-gotten gains. It’s “Goodfellas” in a G-string. But Scafaria’s film is always a blast to watch, resulting in a surprising level of emotional depth.
“Hustlers” itself, unfortunately, doesn’t match the scale or audacity of what she does. Ramona is a big, bold, volatile personality inhabiting a story that is small, tentative and risk-averse. A few years after the crash, after an unhappy relationship has left Destiny raising a child on her own. She reunites with Ramona, who also has a daughter and who has found a new way to make money. Instead of working the pole and the V.I.P. rooms, she and Destiny — along with their colleagues, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) — scour the city’s bars for men of means who can be lured back to the strip club and parte from their credit cards.
Lusty men in musty suits immediately begin throwing money at her legendary derriere—not Lopez’s
Exactly, but that of the veteran exotic dancer she portrays, the impeccably preserved Ramona. Still, it’s hard to discern completely between Lopez the superstar and the larger-than-life character she plays in “Hustlers,” . And that’s actually part of the pleasure of watching this career-best performance from the multi-talented multi-hyphenate. We know this figure—we know the swagger, the magnetism, the incandescent ability to work an audience—and yet. Lopez has repurposed and repackaged all her well-honed abilities here as a reminder that before she was known as J. Lo, she was a naturally gifted actress.
Eventually the game shifts from a con to something more felonious. As the women, rather than plying their marks with drinks and winks, slip knockout drugs into their cocktails and empty their wallets and expense accounts. It’s not exactly a victimless crime, but “Hustlers” brushes off any serious ethical qualms, partly by making the men. For the most part, interchangeable jerks in an indefensible line of work.
Which would be fine if the movie had the courage of its populist convictions.
But class struggle isn’t really at stake any more than gender equality is. The spirit of “Hustlers” is so insistently affirmative and celebra
Scafaria makes it clear that she is on Destiny and Ramona’s side. They are loyal friends, devoted mothers, comfortable with their bodies and their choices. All of which is welcome, given the long tradition of treating strippers as easy objects of titillation and moral hand-wringing. But the movie seems to view any examination of its characters’ motives. Their working conditions or the consequences of their actions as a kind of betrayal. There are feints in the direction of realism and social inquiry. But every time she might dig a little deeper into Destiny’s inner life or Ramona’s relationships. Scafaria falls back into bubbly girl-boss montages and luxury-brand consumer fetishism.
The problem isn’t a refusal of judgment, but rather an absence of perspective, a have-it-all-ways approach to the material that feels evasive. Late in the game — when the game is pretty much up — Ramona asserts that “this whole city. This whole country, is one big strip club,” a metaphor that would be more provocative if the movie had backed it up, had showed any real curiosity about the moral, economic and erotic transactions that keep the hustle running. But maybe that’s the lesson: The money keeps flowing, and nobody’s ever really satisfied.
Rating: R (for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity)
Directed By: Lorene Scafaria
Stars: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles
Written By: Lorene Scafaria
In Theaters: Sep 13, 2019 Wide
Runtime: 107 minutes
As good as Lopez and her onscreen accomplice Constance Wu are, they can’t act what isn’t in the script; other than a dedicated work ethic, we’re never given access to their thoughts.
Scafaria’s film is always a blast to watch. It is resulting in a surprising level of emotional depth.