Review: Jennifer Lopez's 'Hustlers' is so good, it almost makes up for 'Showgirls'
Based on a 2015 magazine article about strippers fleecing their wealthy Wall Street clientele, writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s gratifying comedy/drama (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) is so good it almost makes up for “Showgirls,” “Striptease” and “Burlesque.” “Hustlers” is empathetic and understanding in the way it looks at sex workers as also single moms and women just trying to get by in a world where the rich seemingly only get richer. It also works as an enjoyable, empowering extravaganza of physical humor, clever script writing, exquisite fashion and scantily clad underdogs.
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The film centers on Destiny (Constance Wu) in 2007, when she’s a rookie exotic dancer, and also seven years later as she recounts her involvement in some shady escapades to a wide-eyed journalist (Julia Stiles). The woman really running the show is Ramona (Lopez), though, a force of nature in fur who takes Destiny under her wing, teaches her the ins and outs of pole dancing, and imparts know-how to tease extra tips from customers.
Both Destiny and Ramona want to make money and take care of their families, so when the 2008 financial crisis hits, the glory days go away, too. To make ends meet, they form a corporation of sorts with co-workers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer). At first they just get their marks drunk and snag a few thousand here and there, but the women grow more ambitious and reckless with their schemes, turning to chemical cocktails so they can max out credit cards while the dudes look like they’re extras on “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Lopez is obviously a multi-hyphenate star, but she goes supernova here in her best cinematic showing since 1998’s “Out of Sight.” With Ramona, she creates a character very much into sisterhood and family, with enough instances of greed and questionable decision-making where her cryptic allegiances form an extra undercurrent of drama. And there’s the fact she’s just a showstopper and still a Fly Girl: Lopez has a pole-dancing routine set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” that’s simply phenomenal and positively gravity-defying.
Lopez sparks off Wu, her onscreen partner in crime, and their close friendship (followed by the cracks that form within) grounds the movie. Other big names show up fleetingly, although they make the most of their time, including Cardi B as the club’s resident lap-dance expert, Lizzo playing the flute and even Usher preening for a quick cameo.
With “Hustlers” being ostensibly the “Avengers” and "Star Wars" of stripper movies, Scafaria juggles a large cast well and still keeps the momentum humming along. It’s a big shift from Scafaria’s last project, underrated heartwarmer “The Meddler,” yet she balances the joyous fun with the larger moral questions at play. Even though the men (with a few exceptions) are mostly one-dimensional creeps, the women wrestle with the consequences of what they’re doing, with some feeling guilty and others sticking it to The Man, collectively speaking.
“Hustlers” lays bare the hopes and dreams of women bonded through stilettos and dollar bills, without ever stripping away the movie’s wilder side.