Hustlers review – J-Lo's stealing strippers saga is a vicarious thrill

The multi-hyphenate star delivers a standout turn in a snappy, fact-based caper about strippers scamming Wall Street bankers

After the dog days of August, littered with one lazily patchworked Hollywood product after another, there’s something wickedly indulgent about the arrival of Hustlers, a slick, flashy, seductively entertaining segue from one season to the next. It’s ideally positioned, premiering at the Toronto film festival before a mid-September release: it matches the immediate gratification of a summer movie with the artful substantiveness of an awards contender – yet remains not quite definable as either.

Based on an acclaimed long-read feature by Jessica Pressler, it tells a story that feels familiar and fresh. Familiar because we’re accustomed to the fact-based crime movie formula, but fresh because we don’t usually see it played out with women. It’s 2007 and Destiny (Constance Wu) has discovered that the life of a stripper isn’t quite as glamorous or as lucrative as she thought. The competition is fierce, the clientele is either creepy (“What did daddy do to you?”) or racist (“Hey, come here Lucy Liu!”) and by the time the men she works for have taken their cut, the money is barely adequate. It doesn’t help that she’s not quite sure what to do or just how to move her body to make more money, something she’s keenly aware of when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).

Ramona is everything Destiny isn’t: she’s in control of her sexuality, her business, and the men she’s trying to impress. She’s also more than happy to take Destiny under her wing to show her some more dextrous moves, and the pair become fast, financially fruitful friends, working the champagne room together, earning more than ever before. But then something happens: the recession. Destiny gets pregnant, leaves the club and years later tries to re-enter the workforce. But her inexperience outside of stripping makes her largely unemployable and so she returns to the place she knows best. Without excessive overspending from Wall Street’s most aggressive earners, it’s a bleaker landscape, and once she’s reunited with Ramona, she learns about fishing.

To fish is to leave the four walls of the strip club and bring in guys from outside, to fool them into thinking they’re genuinely interested before drugging them, stealing their account details and racking up exorbitant credit card bills. To Ramona, post-recession, it’s not just a means of survival but a fitting revenge. However, once the pair start earning huge amounts, things soon spiral out of control.

There are so many immediate pleasures and vicarious thrills to be had in Hustlers, a giddy, gaudy blast of a movie, that it’s easy to forget the intricate framework which houses it. Through writer-director Lorene Scafaria, whose Susan Sarandon vehicle The Meddler was a warm surprise at Toronto in 2015, a world traditionally seen through leering male eyes is now blessed with a canny, incisive female lens. Even when films have focused on strippers as something other than window dressing, they’ve still been written and directed by men and have smoothed over rougher edges, turning them all into titillating one-note archetypes. Instead, Scafaria views the strip club like any other workplace, filled with internal politics and an ever-changing hierarchy of power. It can be intimidating for sure, but there’s also a genuine camaraderie between a group of women who realise that combining their talents makes them that much more powerful.

Constance Wu, Frank Whaley and Jennifer Lopez.
Constance Wu, Frank Whaley and Jennifer Lopez. Photograph: STX Films/Allstar

When the women are having fun, so are we, and for the most part, there’s plenty of it to be had, whether it’s watching a cameoing Cardi B teach Wu how to lap dance or Lopez trying to pay for a luxury car with dollar bills. Scafaria smoothly guides us through their world on the way up, but has a rougher time on the way down – an inevitable pitfall of the subgenre. Often the mechanics of true crime tales aren’t quite cinematic enough and as the plan falls apart, Scafaria’s film almost follows. The rhythm becomes fractured and there’s an overreliance on our investment in certain emotional angles. But it’s a brief dip. As the final act looms, the film gets back on track in time to wrestle with the knotty issue of morality. Was it acceptable for the women to steal this money because it was arguably stolen in the first place? Did society owe them something that they were merely taking from elsewhere? What chances did these men have that these women didn’t?

Wu, who broke out with what I found to be a rather flat and charmless turn in Crazy Rich Asians, is far more effective here, slickly switching between vulnerable and manipulative and while there are equally effective performances from Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart and Akeelah and the Bee’s Keke Palmer, the film really, truly belongs to J-Lo. Blessed with one of the most memorable entrances in recent cinema history (pole-dancing to Fiona Apple’s Criminal and met with a swarm of money), Lopez slinks through Hustlers with a deceptive ease, as in control of the film as her character is of her situation. It’s the sort of role that only a true movie star could pull off, so much of it reliant on a rare, intoxicating magnetism. It’s all too easy to view her acting career as starting and ending with Out of Sight and she has coasted in some frustratingly mediocre films since, but she’s always remained a captivating screen presence. She’s so perfectly calibrated as Ramona that it feels like she’s been unintentionally building toward it for years. Awards attention would be deserved but a far greater result would be a more expansive set of roles in her future.

She’s the shining neon star of Hustlers, a shrewd, deliciously entertaining pop culture caper that kicks off the new season with a splash. Bring some dollar bills, because they deserve them.

  • Hustlers is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released on 13 September


Benjamin Lee in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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