1 Hr., 49 Mins.
Hustlers September 26, 2019
ennifer Lopez is a great actress. But because she has more bad than good movies under her belt — she has more star features adjacent to the light Maid in Manhattan (2002) than ones to the clever Out of Sight (1998) — it’s an easy-to-forget truth. So when she gets on board a project worthy of her, a sense of discovery often lends itself to our enjoyment of the movie. The film itself might gratify, but much of the
gratification is first rooted in our relief that Lopez isn’t again being wasted, second in a reminder that she’s a stellar screen performer who doesn’t flex her acting muscles as boldly, or as often, as we’d like.
It’s been a while since Lopez has been in a movie that’s effectively complemented her skill set. Arguably the artistic dry spell has lasted about 20 years, beginning after the release of the underrated, persistently bizarre detective-horror thriller The Cell (2000). So a movie like this year’s Hustlers — a deliciously salacious, tabloid-fascinating comic thriller — is as a welcome jolt for believers in JLo the actress. In the movie, she gets a role that magnificently merges her indelible persona and formidable acting chops.
Here she’s a glamorous, cunning stripper turned quasi-crime kingpin named Ramona Vega. The first time we see her, she’s acrobatically pole-dancing at a seamy gentlemen's club called Scores to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” We’re hooked. Moments later, we greet her on a rooftop. There, she's smoking a cigarette, swaddled in exquisitely puffy furs. By then, Ramona has become a cult of personality. Lopez is so magnetic in this role that we’ve only barely gotten to know her before we’ve decided that we’ve committed. Lopez fits into this part as comfortably and confidently as Ramona slips into her Lucite heels.
Many people commit themselves to Ramona throughout Hustlers, a film about how she and some of her co-workers started getting crafty with their jobs and began drugging and robbing men on the side. (The movie is based on “The Hustlers at Scores,” a terrific New York piece by Jessica Pressler.) Once they got great at it, they pulled off their sagely planned gigs with such efficiency that they were essentially able to turn it into a full-time business. (Of course, things eventually got out of control.) Ramona’s main acolyte is Destiny (Constance Wu), a newer stripper whom she takes under her wing and with whom she starts a deep (and pretty toxic) friendship.
Hustlers feels like a saga. Part of that's temporally to blame. The film begins in 2007, when strip clubs were still relatively happening places, runs through the 2008 financial recession and its aftereffects, then sees most of the crimes take place in the early 2010s, after desperation has started to flare up for our main characters. We learn that what we’re seeing is a flashback being recounted by Destiny years later — around 2014. She’s speaking to a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, standing in for Pressler), who's learned about Ramona and co.’s fun run via their legal troubles. Aside from the structural devices, which provide the film with an epic touch, the movie is also understatedly heady. It's just as much a parable on the complexities of near-codependent female friendship as it is one on capitalism-enforced desperation. The film, swaggeringly and sensitively written and directed by Lorene Scarfaria, has been compared to the gangster dramas of Martin Scorsese (who passed on directing it), and for good reason. Hustlers shares their operatic DNA. It, too, gives trying to survive in the cruel world through opulent and grand-scale corner-cutting a seductive, soapy dynamism.
Hustlers is bursting with star turns. The movie predictably belongs to the career-best Lopez and Wu, who’s just right as the film’s emotional center. (After a while, Destiny starts having doubts about her role in these seedy crimes; Wu wonderfully captures the internal conflict.) But it also allows for the smaller character notes to sing. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, the other main participants in the drug-and-rob jobs, are respectively loud-mouthedly funny as the sometimes-skeptic and humorously nervous as the new-at-this young thing. Cardi B and Lizzo, who get memorable walk-ons, prove that their star personae translate well into movies. You sense Cardi isn’t playing a character. Stiles, as the faux-Pressler, has a pragmatic calm to her that lends itself well to the increasing chaos. I lived vicariously through her whenever she appeared. (At one point in the movie, Destiny dramatically turns off Elizabeth’s recorder when an interview takes a turn and the film literally goes silent — a reminder, in a way, of the role journalism has played in bringing so many epochal stories to the public consciousness.)
Although Hustlers doesn’t tell a universal story, it still strikes a universal chord. The movie makes that point for us recurrently, but it’s especially cemented by its closing line. Lopez, sitting across from Stiles, likens America to a strip club. "You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” There, the movie feels even more ever-monumental. That Ramona and her posse temporarily turned tides pushes a recognizable button that I suspect made the original article so popular four years ago, and what will make the film continuously popular in the years to come. The appeal of leading rather than doing the capitalistic dance is a strong one. The feature constructs an intriguing what-if scenario for us. A-