Jennifer Lopez delivers her career best performance in Hustlers, a true crime story that was a tabloid sensation. Adapted from the 2015 New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, a gang of strippers turn the tables on lecherous Wall Street businessmen. Equal parts sultry, humorous, and heartbreaking, Hustlers brings a needed female perspective to an industry poorly portrayed by Hollywood. Director/writer Lorene Scafaria never loses sight of the struggles behind the G-strings and titillation. These women took care of their families and each other, but succumbed to greed. Their bonds of friendship and loyalty were no match for the almighty dollar.
Hustlers opens at a Manhattan strip club in 2007. Destiny (Constance Wu) is having a hard time making a living. She watches as the other strippers take home bundles of cash. Shy and unsure of how to use her sexuality, Destiny uses her meager earnings to support her sick grandmother. She becomes transfixed by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s top earner. Radiantly sexy and alluring, Ramona is a master of manipulation. She expertly squeezes every nickel from her besotten marks.
Ramona takes Destiny under her wing. She becomes a mentor and best friend. The women thrive until the recession of 2008 decimates Wall Street. Their source of easy cash evaporates. Younger girls willing to do sexual favors for peanuts compete against them. Ramona makes a bold decision to start “fishing” for clients. She recruits Destiny and her stripper family (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart) to target wealthy men at upscale bars. Then slip them a potent mix of the party drugs Ketamine and Ecstasy to loosen their wallets.
Hustlers gets down into the trenches of a stripper’s lifestyle. The women have to pay multiple people at the club for the opportunity. We watch as Destiny returns home with almost nothing after nights of sexual degradation. Ramona teaches her a master class in seduction, glamour, and how to work the stripper’s pole like a gymnast. The women are high school dropouts, have young children, and little income potential. A career as an exotic dancer was born out of necessity. These early scenes are compelling. Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) develops a core to the lead characters. They have a degree of complexity not usually seen in films of this subject matter. Hustlers goes way beyond skin deep.
The film ramps up the flash and sizzle when the money starts rolling in. Think Goodfellas meets The Wolf of Wall Street, girl power version. The gang kicks the partying into high gear to revel in their ill-gotten gains. Clothes, jewelry, new cars, and houses, the wealth they’ve been clamoring for finally arrives. Hustlers gets big laughs from their success. Audiences will howl as the women dupe, drug, and steal from the hapless men. Jennifer Lopez has a fantastic monologue about giving Wall Street scumbags their due. They stole from everyone, crippled the country, and still ended up with all of the money. Her reasoning assuaged their guilt.
Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez are a lock for Oscar nominations. Their roles are pure awards bait, but deservingly so. The performances are all-encompassing, with a wide range of emotional and physical effort. The actresses go from nearly naked gyrations to running a criminal enterprise, while being mothers and caretakers. They are believable from the first frame of Hustlers. The dramatic finale is quite affecting. The audience sympathizes with the characters downfall. What they did was wrong, but you’re rooting for them the entire time.
Hustlers sets a new standard for the exotic dancer genre. It never becomes salacious or exploitative. Lorene Scafaria crafts a thoroughly entertaining film with a whole lot of heart. J-Lo becomes stripper Yoda and probably adds an Oscar to her awards shelf. Pole and lap dancing classes are going to be in high demand. Hustlers is produced by Gloria Sanchez Productions, Nuyorican Productions, and Annapurna Pictures, with distribution from STX Films.
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