As stripper movies go, “Hustlers” is better than most, which isn’t saying much because most stripper movies are kind of lame. I’d put it right after “Magic Mike” which is more entertaining and has a priceless performance by Matthew McConaghy.
“Hustlers” (R) is based on a true story covered in New York Magazine about former strippers who work together to drug wealthy men and max out their credit cards. We learn about this as Destiny (Constance Wu) recounts the story to the magazine writer played by Julia Styles.
Destiny has been dancing for a while as it’s the only way she can make enough money to live and get her beloved grandmother out of debt. She’s the new girl at an upscale strip club in New York City where she’s immediately and without much explanation, taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).
Lopez is the reason you’ve either heard of “Hustlers” or have already seen it. She is getting the best reviews of her career, and proving that 50 is the new 30 (if you are Jennifer Lopez), does a pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” that is crazy sexy and gravity-defying. Warning to all normal non-JLo women, do not try this at home, or at the gym with a spotter.
The early scenes at the strip club are very entertaining and dare I say, enlightening. They’re handled in a very matter-of-fact manner. The women vary in age, body type, and enthusiasm for their profession. They even have a den mother (Mercedes Ruhl). If you’re under 30 and reading this, Cardi B and Lizzo play two of the strippers. If you’re over 30 you have no idea who I’m talking about and are still wondering how Lopez did what she did 10 minutes earlier.
It’s 2007 and there’s plenty of money courtesy of the obnoxious Wall Street types who have nothing better to do than throw money around and talk down to women. Somebody ought to teach them a lesson.
When the recession hits in 2008 and their Wall Street clientele stop throwing around money, Destiny moves on, meets a guy, has a baby and when she can’t find a job, even in retail, goes back to the club. She reunites with Ramona who brings Destiny into her side venture of hustling men, getting them back to the club and maxing out their credit cards. Fun times! To move things along, Ramona, Destiny and the other members of the crew, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) start drugging their marks.
Up until that point, I was with these women. As Ramona says, “These Wall Street guys, you see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything, and not one of these (not nice word) went to jail.” But once the drugging started they kind of lost me.
The other problem is that while they talk about needing the money to pay rent, and support their kids, the women seem to spend a lot of money on extravagant purchases. I understand that watching strippers meet with their financial advisors isn’t quite as much fun as watching them tear through a high-end boutique. But throwing their ill-gotten cash away on furs and Gucci bags kind of makes them seem as materialistic as the guys they’re scamming.
Constance Wu is having a moment with “Crazy Rich Asians” and the sitcom “Fresh off the Boat” She’s quite good here, especially as “Hustlers” deals with Destiny and Ramona’s falling out. However, Lopez dominates every scene the two share. Actually Lopez dominates every scene she’s in. It doesn’t help that Reinhart and Palmer’s characters are so undeveloped and after their post-scam fates are barely dealt with.
“Hustlers” is directed by Lorene Scafaria and her snappy style and use of humor reminded me a bit of Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas,” but with less swearing, blood and testosterone. The film is all about female empowerment to the extent that none of the male characters matter at all, and except for one guy (and one celebrity cameo), they’re all creeps. When one man desperately begs the women to return the money and Ramona refuses, I lost all empathy for her. That hurts the emotional impact that Scafaria seems to be going for as the film winds down. Male, female, downtrodden or wealthy, a bad person is a bad person. That said, a great performance is a great performance, and Lopez makes “Hustlers” worth seeing.
Hustlers: 3 (out of 5) STARS