Look out, Oscar, because Jennifer Lopez is coming for you. Out of its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hustlers bursts onto the awards season stage like Lopez does in the enthralling, strip club-centered crime drama, bursting with charisma, electric with sex appeal, and slicked in glitter.
Based on journalist Jessica Pressler’s exposé for The Cut, Hustlers stars Constance Wu as Destiny (A.K.A. Dorothy), a Jersey girl struggling to make ends meet by dancing in strip clubs. Hoping to make a bigger score, she commutes nightly into Manhattan, but struggles to compete with the more established exotic dancers. That is until she meets Ramona.
The familiar, nervy thrum of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” sparks anticipation as if something big, shocking, and exhilarating is on the horizon. Destiny whips her head around to see the stage, where the pole is being claimed by a statuesque Latina with long hair, impossible curves, and a monokini that seems held in place by sheer will. As Apple’s song sounds a smirking confession, Lopez commands the stage with stomping stems, astounding pole-acrobatics, and a bravado so overwhelming the men in the club gasp, gulp, and cheer in unison. And so do we. She is a vision of female sexuality and strength that is both titillating and intimidating. In this introduction, Lopez gives the audience a jaw-dropping spectacle and full-body rush on par with Channing Tatum’s “Pony” sequence from Magic Mike. After the climax of Ramona’s dizzying performance, writer-director Lorene Scafaria cheekily cuts to the afterglow that’s just as glorious: Lopez satisfied and smoking a cigarette as she lounges on a moonlit rooftop, draped in a luxurious fur coat.
The audience at the packed Roy Thompson Theater literally screamed in exaltation.
Like us, Destiny is awe-struck by Ramona, who seems both untouchably cool yet enchantingly warm. Having a soft spot for “strays,” Ramona quickly welcomes Destiny under her wing, and under a swatch of that cozy fur coat [pictured up top]. They cuddle together on that rooftop, and a sisterhood is born. Yes, this movie will tackle the infamous story of strippers who drugged Wall Street bros to rob them blind. But Scafaria won’t wag her fingers at these women, or push them to apologize for being bad girls. Instead, she envisions them as gangsters, anti-heroes who mesmerize even as they maraud. Like Goodfellas, Hustlers is a movie of deeply bonded friends who searched for power, wealth, and the good life by working together, scoffing at the rules, and breaking the law. And we love them for it.
For decades upon decades, gangster movies have allowed audiences to live vicariously through these rogues who took the American Dream through charm, wits, and force. They are criminals, villains, and often folk heroes who push back against a society that pushed them down. But mostly, these are stories of men. In Hustlers, the gang at its center is made up of single mothers, young women cast out from their families, and girlfriends working to support their partners. In a swift opening sequence, Destiny steps us through the pitfalls of making good money at the club, from bored clients, to sneering rivals, and tip-snatching managers. Once she teams up with Ramona—for double-acts and pole dancing lessons—things begin to click, and the cash comes rolling in. Scafaria allows us to revel along with these women with scenes where they work, play, and celebrate together. But it’s not all fun and games.
Abruptly, Hustlers will leap from this early-aughts heyday to 2014, where Dorothy looks starkly different. Her plucked brows and blunt bangs have grown in and out, while her fashion sense has gone from party girl to PTA mom. With a guarded expression, she shares her story with an investigating journalist (Julia Stiles). These flash-forwards allow Scafaria a place to make disclaimers, like how not all strippers are thieves and how sex-work can make an honest living. It was for these women for years. The 2008 financial crisis changed everything. As the economy tanked because of greedy Wall Street crooks, the “make it rain” moments at the clubs dried up. So Ramona had to get creative.
There’s a gleeful “Eat The Rich” vibe to Hustlers’ second act, in which the women build an operation where they drug cocktails, lure men to champagne rooms, then charge their credit cards for thousands and thousands. While Destiny initially bristles, Ramona justifies this scheme on a Robin Hood level. These marks tanked the economy and got away scot-free. She argues they deserve a little payback for their greed and callousness. Scafaria offers us the rush of power of taking these devilish dudes down a few pegs. There’s a jubilance and dark comic edge as Destiny and the gang drug grabby fools in clubs, coax them to sign for bottle service, and even dump them off bloody and unconscious at the Emergency Room. It’s the same kind of rush we get watching a gun-slinging gangster survive a shootout or witnessing Danny Ocean pull off a complicated heist. While Scafaria relishes the outlaw life of her anti-heroines, she doesn’t shy away from the damage they caused. Many of their victims are painted as creeps who could take—and maybe deserved—the hit, but Hustlers’ tone shifts as the journalist asks about one victim who couldn’t afford to be swindled like this. The real costs of these glamorous gangsters come into focus as the law comes crashing down.
Hustlers is an exhilaratingly entertaining crime-drama that gives the gangster fantasy that’s so often male-focused a ferociously feminine spin. Rather than suits and the best table at a swanky nightclub, it doles out designer bags, swanky fur coats, and magnificent Manhattan penthouses piled high with poshly wrapped presents come Christmas. But more than the material goods, Hustlers explores the sisterhood of these gangster girls. As she did with Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World, Scafaria centers her fantastic film on the bond between two people, and how it pulls them through even the most outrageous adventure. From the start, she ushers us into the dressing room of the club, where the women share stories, concerns, and birthday cake. She invites us into homes, where they share champagne and real pain with equal devotion. She shows us a pivotal moment, where loyalties are tested and we are left breathless over how devastating a hug can be. And for each beat, she’s got a cast that positively slays.
The supporting cast boasts appearances from Cardi B, Lizzo, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer. All pop, and yeah, Lizzo plays the flute for a bit. Rounding out the core gang, Keke Palmer brings spunky comic relief while Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart offers a wide-eyed gusto. Wu, who was the charming center to the explosive ensemble of Crazy Rich Asians, brings tenderness and steeliness to this story of a good girl gone hard. While Wu is its lead, Lopez is undoubtedly its star, turning in the most riveting performance in the film and the best of her career.
Lopez’s filmography is admittedly checkered, with highs like Selena and Out of Sight and lows like Jersey Girl and Gigli. With Hustlers, Lopez is absolutely on fire. She weaponizes her public persona as an unflappably confident, undeniably hot sex symbol/mogul with that first “Criminal” sequence, blowing us away with the sheer force of her allure. Then, she welcomes us into a softer side, like Ramona welcomes Destiny into the embrace of her fur coat. Lopez’s charisma is so intoxicating that it’s easy to see how Ramona could build a “cult” of roofie-dropping Robin Hoods, and how so many men could fall under her spell. She’s a mix of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas from Magic Mike, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill from Goodfellas, and Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block.” She’s a scintillating power fantasy in stripper heels. But that’s not all, because Lopez also works in a cheeky recklessness, a final flaw that is foolish hope. She is not the callous crook dressed up with different suits and scowls over decades of mobster movies. Ramona is something familiar, yet fresh. And Lopez brings her to life, full-bodied, fearless, and fascinating.
In short, Hustlers is good fun, a great ride, with a sharp wit, and plenty of heart. And Lopez is positively phenomenal, from her first booty shake to her final money drop. Don’t miss Hustlers. It’s not only a dazzling crowd-pleaser but also one of the best films of the year hands-down.
Hustlers made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters Friday.
Header Image Source: STX Entertainment