Just over a month ago we got The Kitchen, a crime thriller about women who assume control in a man’s underworld. Hustlers tells a similar story carried by another female-led cast. Where The Kitchen was a B- movie at best, however, Hustlers ups the drama, humor, and character development by a whole letter grade. While not a game-changer per se, writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film takes a familiar setup and has a ball with it. Imagine Molly’s Game if the titular character was in the stripping business rather than the poker business. Both films are witty, sharp, and surprisingly based on real-life figures.
Constance Wu blew up in popularity as the lead in Crazy Rich Asians and she finds another winning role here as Dorothy, or Destiny as she’s known as work. A young stripper trying to support her grandmother, Destiny struggles to make ends meet at the club. She’s immediately entranced upon setting her sights on Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a seasoned stripper who commands the pole like a Cirque du Soleil dancer. Taking Destiny under her fur coat, Ramona shows her protégé how to manipulate the wolves of Wall Street for the best tips. Destiny seems to be living the good life until she finds herself pregnant, single, and in the middle of an economic crisis. Ramona also falls on hard times, as do fellow strippers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer).
The four ladies thus decide to enter the embezzlement game, seducing and drugging men with cash to burn. They aren’t merely motivated by greed, but the need to rebel against a system that’s failed them. Julia Stiles stars as Elizabeth, a journalist investigating the ladies’ scheme several years down the line. In reality, Jessica Pressler was the journalist who chronicled their crimes in a New York Magazine article. The deeper Elizabeth digs, she uncovers a surprisingly compelling story of sisterhood. Alas, it’s only a matter of time until the cracks in their scam begin to show.
While the entire ensemble exuberates with chemistry, Lopez is the glue who holds everything together. Between The Boy Next Door, Enough, and Gigli, the bad movies in Lopez’s filmography undeniably outweigh the good. In Hustlers, however, we’re reminded why she became a movie star. Confident, sexy, and beaming with charisma, this is a role that Lopez was destined to play. Much like Lady Gaga in a Star Is Born, it’s a performance that leaves the audience seeing Lopez in a whole new light. Will Lopez follow in Gaga’s footsteps with an Oscar nomination come next year?
Hustlers is less bleak than Windows, but more original than Ocean’s 8. Scafaria strikes an ideal balance of fun and breezy, but not without incorporating social relevance. Since the movie is about women who turn the tables on sleazy men, one might assume that it’s a direct response to the #MeToo movement. Of course, the events of this movie took place long before #MeToo was even trending. Pressler’s article made for an interesting read back in 2015 and it’s even more fascinating looking back at this story four years later in a world where the game is significantly changing.