From the moment Jennifer Lopez struts on-screen in Lorene Scafaria‘s wonderful new movie Hustlers, you cannot take your eyes off of her. Part queen bee and part mama bear, her character Ramona is fierce as she is kind, powerful as she can be vulnerable. Like a lioness, Ramona protects her pride of strippers and looks after them, even looking after some that may bring trouble with them. When approaching the group’s prey, her head goes low, her stare fixed. She’s leading the charge, and she’s not letting that man with a big wallet out of her sight. Her well-manicured claws, impeccable fur coats and sheer magnetism cannot and will not be overlooked this time. It’s an ideal melding of Lopez’s star persona and a delicious role for the actress to sink her teeth into.
Although this is perhaps Lopez’s best performance since Out of Sight, she’s just one part of an incredibly talented cast. Based on Jessica Pressler’s article on a New York City scam ring run by strippers in the wake of the 2008 recession, Hustlers recreates the riveting crime story for a semisweet feel-good movie that’s entertaining from start to finish. Ramona is not the movie’s main character — that honor belongs to the equally fun-to-watch Constance Wu as Destiny, a young stripper who just moved to her first big city club and still has a lot to learn. That’s when Ramona comes in, a figure so in charge of the place, Destiny stares at her with awe. We do too. Humbly, Destiny approaches Ramona for training and the two become friends, laying down the foundation of their eventual criminal plans. Years after the 2008 crash decimated strippers’ cash-happy patrons, things are still tough on the club floor, so Ramona and Destiny join forces to scout out men with cushy jobs, drug their drinks and swipe their credit cards before they returned to their senses. They thought it was the perfect plan — until it wasn’t.
One of Hustlers’ best features is its cast. Scafaria, who both wrote and directed the movie, pays special attention to the dynamics between the women, how it changes and how we look or treat each other differently when we’re on the outs with someone. When things are going well for Ramona and Destiny, they’re physically close and affectionate with each other, but when things are going wrong, they’re usually apart from each other, not even in the same scene or the emotions that follow a fallout. There are varying degrees of cattiness between women in the industry, a territorial attitude that can keep them apart and a moralizing view from Destiny that judges the women who also do sex work. Fortunately, there are many more moments of camaraderie than tearing down, like when Cardi B and Lizzo make appearances in the movie’s rosier scenes or the shared time with co-conspirators played by Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, newer strippers that Destiny and Ramona take on to increase their shady business. Even the Mother played by Mercedes Ruehl, one of the few Latinas to win an Oscar, has a way of bringing the women together through home-cooked deserts to be passed around backstage. The happiest moment in the movie is not when the women are busy scamming men but when they’re all together swapping gifts for the holidays.
The movie walks a fine line between glamorizing the women’s schemes and condemning their actions. To accomplish this, Scafaria contextualizes the women’s situations that led them to take such drastic measures through Destiny’s interview with a journalist (Julia Stiles). Both Ramona and Destiny have kids to look after, Mercedes (Palmer) has a boyfriend on his way to jail and Annabelle (Reinhart) was kicked out of her family’s home when they learned she was a stripper. In trying times, these women chose to fight desperation with sisterhood. It’s a charming message many moviegoers could readily support, even if how the women act out that mantra is a bit more controversial.
Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl give viewers get a sense of a destination strip club that would attract the Wall Street clientele. They’re sizably spacious complete with blackout curtains, every corner drenched in neon lights and plush private rooms where the scam would take place. As the women’s fortunes increase, Ramona and Destiny’s apartments become naturally brighter and more spacious, both signs of luxury in a big city and the visual opposite of working in a darkly lit club. The opulence hilariously escalates to the point where Ramona can afford to have a tanning bed shipped and installed in her home. She won’t even have to leave her apartment in the dead of winter to keep her tan glowing. It’s the kind of convenience not many in the city could ever afford.
Hustlers may or may not win the hearts of awards season voters, but that’s not so important right now. In the rush to christen Lopez’s performance as Oscar-worthy, we’ve skipped appreciating what a powerful return-to-form moment this has become for her. Many of her last projects have not been so kindly received, so Hustlers has become a redemption arc for Lopez, too. She’s still on top, she still can act and she can still get our attention even by just walking in front of us in tall heels and a fur coat, full of attitude.
Hustlers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now in theaters.