(Jennifer Lopez delivers one of her best performances)
By Joi Childs
This is an advance review out of the Toronto International Film Festival. Hustlers opens in the US and UK on Sept. 13 and in Australia on Oct. 10.
The whole country is a strip club: you’ve got people throwing the money and you’ve got people doing the dance,” Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona says at a pivotal point of Hustlers; a simplistic but apt way of describing the search for power and control that drives this layered and unexpectedly weighty heist movie. Inspired by the 2015 New York Magazine piece “The Hustlers at Scores,” the Lorene Scafaria-directed and written film explores a group of strippers who brazenly embezzle money from rich club attendees.
We follow the group starting in 2007: Destiny (Constance Wu) is new to the club with the desire to take care of her ailing grandmother. She becomes entranced with Ramona, an ambitious veteran of the club whose entire focus is providing for her daughter, who soon takes Destiny under her wing. Things are going well until the 2008 recession: with powerful CEOs and stock brokers feeling the squeeze, they’re less likely to splash their cash in the club, prompting the enterprising Ramona to mastermind a new way of getting paid: drugging these powerful men and stealing their money.
On its face, this would be a perfectly serviceable story if it focused on the act of embezzling. But where the film elevates a potentially cliched Robin Hood story is in showcasing the bonds and motivations of the women, thanks to Scafaria’s one-two punch of script and direction. Behind the camera, Scafaria guides the scenes to avoid making the strip club look oversexed – not to say that the film is lacking in allure, but Scafaria approaches the performances with an artistic lens more than a voyeuristic one.
Stripping is equally sensual and athletic, and both are celebrated in Hustlers – a highlight of this is Ramona teaching Destiny some of the more difficult moves in a dancer’s repertoire to help her drum up tips. Getting instructions around the “tabletop” and the different “hooks” you can do with your leg is unexpected but welcomed, reinforcing the authenticity that’s been built.
As for the script, it’s clear Scafaria prioritized the complexity and friendship of these characters – and it pays off. One standout scene that highlights this pay-off is when the women celebrate Christmas together. It’s a time of celebration and extravagant gifts, not only amongst the women but their extended families as well. Moments like Ramona and Destiny’s grandmother swapping stories shine through as the soul of the piece.
Both elements wouldn’t work without the right actors breathing life into these words. Constance Wu conveys the emotional weight needed to carry this story and serves as the conscience of the operation. But it’s Jennifer Lopez’s driven performance as Ramona that steers the ship. Deploying some of the best acting in her expansive career, Lopez is particularly inspiring as the gang’s ring leader – able to flip from considerate to cold on a dime. Wu and Lopez’s chemistry on screen is electric with a friendship that feels so genuine, you’re almost disappointed this bubble they’ve crafted isn’t real.
Thanks to Lorene Scafaria’s assured writing and direction, this often sensationalized profession is dimensionalized in fascinating ways without falling back on tired tropes. With a nuanced script, standout performances, and the adrenaline of a well-executed heist, Hustlers is an entertaining ride with something meaningful to say about power and control.
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