“Hustlers” (Rated C)
Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer
Dwight’s Rating: 3.5 Stars
It’s not what you’re thinking.
Unless you’re thinking “Hustlers” is going to be one of the best acted, funniest, most heartwarming, compelling and entertaining films of the year so far.
And it shockingly and most certainly is just that. So, check those preconceptions about this being just a female “Magic Mike” at the door.
Well… there is an essence of “Magic Mike” in there, but only in the first half hour or so. It’s much more like just a sprinkling of “Magic Mike” meets “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “The Big Short” (2015) and “Molly’s Game” (2017) – the latter three of which were all among the best movies of their respective years.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay to the romantic comedy-drama “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), “Hustlers” is inspired by and based on a true story article in New York Magazine back in December 2015. Entitled “The Hustlers at Scores” – Scores being a “gentlemen’s club” – the piece by Jessica Pressler detailed what it called a “modern Robin Hood story” about what were termed “a few strippers who stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves”.
Names (and apparently a few details) have been changed for the movie. But we meet Destiny (Constance Wu) working as a stripper to make ends meet. Her life changes forever when she becomes friends with Ramona (Jessica Lopez) – the club’s top money earner. Ramona soon shows Destiny how to finagle her way around the wealthy Wall Street clientele who frequent the club. But when the 2008 economic collapse cuts into their profits, the duo and two other dancers devise a daring scheme to take their lives back.
Scafaria does a commendable job structuring the picture, blessing it with fantastic pacing. The story is told mostly in chronological order but is broken up by scenes with Destiny (in the future – or the present?) speaking to whom we come to realize is the writer for the magazine.
Even these magazine sessions are tense and emotional, helping to spur on the drama, and the sense that something big and bad is about to go down. But while you’re on the edge of your seat, you’re also heartily laughing at this incredibly funny movie. It’s just a magical mix of sexiness, humor and intrigue.
A lot of the credit also has to go to the performances of the stellar ensemble cast. In the smaller roles, there’s a combination of hot-right-now performers and used-to-be-big actresses, including flute-playing rapper Lizzo, who currently has the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100, chart-smashing rapper and former stripper Cardi B, and actress Mercedes Ruehl, who won her only Oscar in 1992, the year Cardi B was born.
In the bigger roles, we welcome the seldom seen Julia Stiles (“Save the Last Dance”) playing that aforementioned magazine writer, and we have two hilarious scene-enhancers in Keke Palmer (“Akeelah and the Bee”) and Lili Reinhart (TV’s “Riverdale”), part of Destiny and Ramona’s hustle crew.
I’m calling Palmer and Reinhart “scene-enhancers” and not “scene-stealers” because there’s little they could have done to take attention away from this film’s two leading ladies.
For Wu and Lopez, “Hustlers” represents major career highpoints.
Wu got a lot of attention last year for “Crazy Rich Asians”. She gave a decent performance in a film that ultimately couldn’t quite live up to all the hype. But as I stated last year, if you really wanted a more accurate measure of Wu’s true talents, watch her amazing range on the ABC sitcom “Fresh off the Boat”, on which she plays an obsessively neurotic and domineering yet self-centered mom. Her wit and comic-timing, but also wisps of dramatic chops, are on full display in every episode.
With “Hustlers”, we get to see it all, and Wu’s humor and the intensity are magnified. She’s simply fantastic!
And then there’s Jennifer Lopez!
This is her career-defining performance – the best in all her years in film. Not just because she gets to show off her incredible dance moves in an eye-popping routine, but also her growth as an actress.
Most people will agree that she’s untouchable as a dancer, but unfortunately, there’s much debate about her other talents. For me, she’s just an “okay” singer, who’s managed to have quite a few catchy pop hits.
But she’s always been far better as an actress. Sadly, some of her roles have not been able to showcase this in the best light.
However, if you were one of the few to watch the short-lived and ratings-challenged NBC crime drama, “Shades of Blue”, you got to see a lot more of her abilities.
She played a corrupt cop, part of a team of bad apple cops, always fighting to outsmart and stay ahead of internal affairs. She was also a well-meaning single mom, and thus, deeply-conflicted. The show called for the audience to feel great sympathy for some very naughty people. And Lopez pulled it off effortlessly, especially in the show’s very decent first season, and mostly throughout the life of the series – even when the show’s writing went off-the-rails by season two, and completely collapsed by its mercifully final third season.
With “Hustlers”, Lopez’s role as Ramona is quite similar, except here she gets to be glamorous and sexy with an amazing wardrobe – unlike in the TV show, which worked hard to tone down her appearance, hoping to ensure Lopez came across as more of an everyday “Jenny from the Block” type.
But rarely in her films has Lopez commanded and demanded our attention as she does here. She’s positively glowing and exudes confidence and energy whether she’s speaking or not. It’s just amazing.
What’s most remarkable though is how Lopez and Wu perfectly complement each other. Neither outshines and upstages the other in their many scenes together. They are a fantastic team, and these are both award-worthy performances.
That’s right! Maybe even the big O! Don’t be surprised to see their names mentioned come award season, particularly for Lopez in perhaps supporting performance categories. And she would truly deserve this praise. They both do. And, for that matter, so would writer/director Scafaria too.
To even dream that “Hustlers” would have elicited this kind of ringing endorsement from me would have been simply unthinkable!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitte @morningblend969.