A somewhat overlong but still fabulously entertaining caper movie about the lesser-known effects of the Global Financial Crisis, with a career-best performance from Jennifer Lopez.
I always thought it was a shame that, at the height of her fame, J-Lo was somehow both overexposed and criminally underused. She always had a natural screen presence and charisma, but after the early peak of Out of Sight her talents got mostly squandered in a string of forgettable lightweight romcoms. Hopefully, her spectacular acting comeback here will not remain a mere fluke.
Because I had no idea of what the story was actually about, Hustlers at first seemed to play like a pole-dancing version of All About Eve. Destiny (Constance Wu) is a new girl on the strip club scene, working to support the grandmother who raised her. She’s struggling until she meets Ramona (Lopez), a veteran stripper who effortlessly commands the dance floor and the attention of every man in sight. Ramona is a lioness and a mother hen, as tough and ruthless as she’s warm and caring; she takes Destiny under her wing, teaching her the finer points of working the pole and, more importantly, the finer points of working the various Wall Street types who come to the club to splash their cash. At this point, it seemed like a setup for a familiar “newcomer vs the old hand” type of storyline, but though Destiny and Ramona’s relationship inevitably goes through some major ups and downs and shifts in dynamic, it also forms an emotional heart of the movie.
The two women team up to become an unstoppable seductive duo, and for a while they’re raking it in… but then the 2008 recession hits hard and suddenly all those Wall Street jerks have less money to throw around. The high energy gives way to a more sombre mood, the ladies go their own ways, and in the meantime Destiny ends up a single mother to a baby girl, adding to the financial strain. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Ramona concocts a daring and highly illegal plan of luring the rich men into the club and draining their credit cards, with the help of home-made mix of of MDMA and ketamine sprinkled into their drinks.
Ramona’s justification is that none of the white-collar Wall Street crooks went to jail for screwing up the country, so they totally deserve to be humiliated and fleeced. For most of the time, the film is not terribly interested in wagging a finger at its heroines or questioning the morality of their actions. The men they scam are portrayed as almost uniformly obnoxious and awful, and the movie would rather have you sympathise with the women’s plight.
Despite the razzle-dazzle, pulsating soundtrack and snappy pace, Hustlers is surprisingly grounded in the same way Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike from a few years back was. A few scenes do feel like they could have shed some unnecessary padding, but the movie mostly manages to maintain its Goodfellas-style energy. J-Lo’s magnetic, layered performance is, without a doubt, the film’s biggest weapon; her movie star charisma is channelled here into something edgier and rougher, and her sultry, athletic pole dancing routine near the start to the sound of Fiona Apple’s Criminal is a sight to behold. But I was also impressed with Constance Wu, whose mix of vulnerability and steeliness was so appealing in Crazy Rich Asians and who gets to display more dramatic depth here.