3.5 stars (out of 4)
Hustlers is a fascinating true story dramedy about a group of enterprising exotic dancers in New York City that band together and swindle Wall Street sleaze balls out of money. There’s a valuable lesson in here, as these degraded women get too greedy in their quest to topple the patriarchy and achieve the American dream. But first, I must talk about the Jennifer Lopez and the pole dancing.
Her skills are so jaw-dropping fabulous that if this were an Olympic sport, she’d win gold. First she slithers around the pole with rattlesnake-like smoothness and then she spins around it as if she’s water circling a drain. There will be more important scenes on a big screen this year, but none will be as flat-out awe-inspiring as the one which her character, Ramona, effortlessly shows her protégé (Constance Wu) all her moves, using cute nicknames like “The Peter Pan,” “The Martini” and “The Tabletop.” Ever the consummate and ageless performer, Lopez has found her signature role playing a tough-talking, stiletto-strutting instigator of a crew of enterprising strippers. These ladies did break the law, but you can’t blame them for following the leader.
In case it’s not obvious that this is a story about control, Hustlers literally opens with the line “This is a story about control” — i.e., the spoken-word prologue to the 1987 Janet Jackson classic hit of the same name. (Fun fact: Six years later, J.Lo would appear in Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” music video.) At Score’s in New York City circa 2007, the dancers — played by the likes of Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, and, in glorified cameos, Cardi B and Lizzo — lap up the dollar bills thrown their way. Destiny (Wu) is the new girl on the block. After seeing Ramona do her thing, she seeks her out during a break to ask her for advice. Ramona lets a half-naked Destiny huddle underneath her fur coat outside in the cold. A friendship is born.
As Destiny, nee Dorothy, later explains it to a reporter (Julia Stiles), all the glitz and glitter that came with working at a popular, celebrity-studded strip club landed with a thud in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 2008. Business dries up; Destiny gives birth and becomes a single mom and must care for her grandmother; she and Ramona lose touch; job interviews go nowhere. But at her lowest moment, she runs into her old friend and cries into her arms. Whereas Destiny is fragile and still scarred from being abandoned by her parents at a young age, Ramona is a survivor that won’t let a recession stop her from walking out the door in full makeup, fake lashes and honey-colored hair extensions. She’s determined to keep up her lifestyle, even if it means masterminding a crime.
The plan is simple. First flirt with a big spender at an upscale bar and slip a magic drug in his drink that will both make him euphoric and wipe his memory. Then drag him to a backroom at a strip club and max out his credit card. Make sure he can sign the bill and send him home in a cab. The girls and the club share the profits. When the customer later sees the bill, he’ll be too ashamed and confused to seek retribution. Ramona, peppering her fast-talking dialogue with “baby,” rations that these guys are scamming money from their own clients anyway. This is the only logical move. The scheming results in the most comedic moments of the film, as when Lopez and Wu pull a Breaking Bad experiment with the cooking. Drugging is all sorts of wrong. You’re not supposed to laugh. You will anyway.
So, who’s the real villain? Hustlers succeeds because there’s no clear-cut answer. Most of the guys are faceless, nameless jerks sniffing cocaine and cheating on their wives. The blue-collar women, meanwhile, are working the system rigged against them. They’re real friends that love their families and read Us Weekly. (Yup!) Ramona, for one, is a former Playboy centerfold that must now rely on her street smarts to succeed. Even at her most sinister, she’s sympathetic — and it’s a testament to Lopez’s acting abilities that she gives this glamorous diva a heroic edge. Still, make no mistake: She’s no prototypical stripper with a heart of gold.
We’re all hustlers, Ramona tells her girls, so we may as well get our well-manicured hands on the money before someone else does. The crew does ultimately get their comeuppance. But breaking the rules has never seemed so fun or so necessary.
Hustlers, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens in theaters on Friday, September 13.
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