“You don’t have to be a great dancer, you just have to make their eyes move like one inch”, coaches Jennifer Lopez’s momma-hen nightclub pole dancer character Ramona Vega, to her latest protegee, the plucky Destiny (Constance Wu), a single mom new to the game but willing to learn. Their home: Manhattan. Clientele: Wall Street sharks just looking to blow off steam after a long day on the job. Objective: drain them of their earnings. And even then, they can’t avoid getting in too deep, as a nearly criminal outlet often does. Such is the rhythm of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, a dark comedy that gracefully glamorizes the highs of the sex industry, while demoralizing the painful realities, and notably utilizing an all-licensed soundtrack that can work through Chopin, Bob Seger, Frankie Valli, and even Lorde, all without losing its place in history.
Inspired by a tell-all New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers starts comfortably at the top, where a common hierarchy is established: big shots openly humiliating staff for distressing acts, knowing they easily could get away with it, leaving nary a trace behind. If that seems any familiar, it could be producer Adam McKay’s influence (he did direct the equally seedy The Big Short). That is until, the 2008 economic recession causes a total collapse in their lofty income. When enough time passes, Ramona and Destiny must band together in the name of creative ingenuity to turn their fortunes around and outstrip the net worth of even the sharpest venture capitalist. Think a modern-day Robin Hood, but with a Breaking Bad-esque edge (hilarious cooking scene a must-see alone).
This sordid tale is expressed primarily from Destiny’s POV, her words transcribed by a non-biased reporter (Julia Stiles) for a nondescript expose interview, exploring an under-the-radar universe as a naïve newcomer looking for some extra cash to help restore her academic pursuits. Under Ramona’s wing, and ballet-like dance prowess against that smooth metallic pole, she evolves into a genuine co-leader whose resilience knows no boundary or bikini line, often overshadowing her new friends the more compassionate one in the loyal pack of mischief makers.
Scafaria, who’d previously made waves with The Meddler and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, invokes her inner Scorsese, something most directors who could say their inspired by him, possess with enough direct skill in their arsenal. Her mindset couldn’t be clearer: deviate from genre rules and have fun doing it. Most gal-pal movies tend to fall under a certain trap, where we only see the glamour, and the occasional sexiness. Scafaria aims to disrupt those concepts, de-sexualizing, demoralizing, deregulating the art, the objectivity of being a symbolic figure. In its place we see gutsy business practices, some loose ethics, and mere graceful dance without it necessarily being sexy. Although the audience I had been viewing with will likely agree to disagree there.
When Miss Lopez does appear on screen, she commands it, electrifies it, makes it her own once more. At 50, her film career has seen plenty ups and downs. Her major comeback from last year, the by-the-numbers Second Act placed her in a middling grey area where she was still comfortable in a cheerful role of motherly instinct. But still, a slapdash screenplay held her back. Here, she shines once more, in a manner reminiscent of her 90s heyday, that era where she was unstoppable (i.e. Out of Sight, Money Train and Selena). Here, she’s just as unstoppable, if not more so. It’s a welcome return to form, something unexpected and yet openly deserved.
And of course, the rest of her crew should be equally lauded. Miss Wu, still the comically frenetic mom from Fresh Off the Boat, goes to a new level of intensity following her brilliantly lighthearted role last year in Crazy Rich Asians. Here, she is just wonderfully caring, uniquely honest, but unafraid to sink her jowls into whatever big fish wriggles away. This is perhaps why she deservedly earned top billing over Lopez; she is easily the unsung hero blossoming under her co-star’s influence. That may not mean much for some, but for me I could sense a true star with increasing potential here. Perhaps more after her sitcom ends, and some greater risks could occur.
Rounding them out is Keke Palmer (now a daytime co-host with the almighty Strahan), running circles as an energetic competitor. Ditto for Madeline Brewer, portraying a drug-addled individual working a mile-a-minute. Pop artists Lizzo (complete with flute) and Cardi B (complete with brash sass) offer a pair of decent extended cameos. And even Riverdale’s Lili Rinehart makes a small splash as the rather shy one with a nervous stomach. Best puking scene in a film this year, hands down; not completely gross, and still with a small shred of dignity. Even Mercedes Ruehl gets in on the fun as the club owner, although not with enough screen time as she’d have deserved.
The positive buzz that had swirled around what Scafaria had accomplished with Lopez in tow had admittedly taken me aback at first. But take the first 15 mins with these captains of an industry loosening up its burial in secrecy, and it’s understandable just how compelling their crusade really is, to destroy the status quo, and eliminate the factor of powerful men overshadowing their presence.
Hustlers is far more than what most will see in the advertising. It’s not just a fun time for all in the theater. Not just a showcase for J-Lo to flex her acting muscle again in a way most of us haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. And not just one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It is a film daring to show that working class applies to any profession, and to any professional regardless of wealth. A reminder that for all the prettiness that one can symbolize for an audience, we still must work for it, well into the long-term, and with friends we can trust, learn and grow from. Destiny and Ramona, they’ve got the right idea, expertly navigating their business structure with a detailed eye, but a needful affection toward their goals in life. It’s unforgivable what they had done, and yet, for example when they hold close in Ramona’s big fuzzy coat after a long night to unwind, who’s to say it’s not all worth the risk? (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Hustlers opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity; 109 minutes.