“Hustlers” tells us to think of America as one big strip joint: There are people tossing around money with abandon, and there are people doing the dance.
“We’re all hustling,” says Jennifer Lopez’s character, with authority, in a performance that commands this women-in-control movie in a way that few entertainers could pull off.
It’s a classic movie-star turn for Lopez, and it might even be an award-caliber performance by a woman who has deserved such praise in the past for movies including “Out of Sight” and “Selena.”
From her entrance three minutes into the movie — taking the strip-club stage and working the pole to a degree that will leave men and women alike with jaws dropped — Lopez is the woman in control, displaying such magnetism that you sometimes forget other people are on the screen.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria orchestrates this inspired-by true story of former strippers in New York who, following the 2008 financial crisis that crashes their Wall Street clients, find a way to survive by targeting, and fleecing, those same characters who helped to fleece all the rest of us.
That’s a simple description of their scheme, which is much darker in nature, and Scafaria tells a story of drugs, theft, sex and more drugs in a manner that plays like a female-empowerment “Goodfellas.”
Like that Scorsese classic, “Hustlers” shows us how one person gets into their line of work followed by all the crazy moments, all the crimes that are committed and the odd friendships that form.
And it’s all in the name of women living lives on their own terms without depending on a man.
Constance Wu of “Crazy Rich Asians” is the focus of the film as Destiny, a poor, uneducated woman who fits the sex-worker and single-mom narrative about trying to survive financially in the strip-club culture.
But then she cozies up to co-worker Ramona (Lopez), whose mere appearance on a stage induces men to throw cash everywhere and who becomes something of a mother-figure to Destiny.
The film’s pace is fast and fun early in the pre-2008 scenes among the club’s women, including music stars Cardi B and Lizzo in brief-but-colorful cameos.
Things become darker when a small group of the women reunite post-recession, desperate to survive and armed with Ramona’s plan of “fishing”: luring wealthy men with the promise of a night they’ll never forget, drugging their drinks and then maxing out their credit cards.
“They would do this anyway. We’re just helping them do it,” reasons Ramona, who explains this in a manner that the women can take as “just enjoy the ride” and “don’t double-cross me.”
Of course, these night-they’ll-never-remember encounters can be crazy, dangerous and always illegal, and humor grows out of this, as well as their schemes that take the women from simple survival to being decked out in everything from furs to Louboutin shoes and driving Escalades.
From clothes that leave little to the imagination onstage to Juicy Couture and other brand names, the women look fabulous in this movie.
The men, all wearing dark suits, look as unimaginative as they always do.
There’s plenty of hard work, living hard and hubris on display, and we know it can’t last — but the ride is to be enjoyed.
The one element of “Hustlers” that doesn’t work is the structure that finds Destiny telling the story to a journalist, which will become the profile on which the film is based.
The film never establishes why Wu’s character would divulge the details for public consumption, and judgment, and it doesn’t make sense without an answer.
Then there’s Julia Stiles playing the reporter in such a no-nonsense style that, compared to the pacing of the rest of the film, it feels like the film hits a wall.
But “Hustlers” is less about these two women’s relationship than it is about the ensemble friendship, a wild story told well, a killer soundtrack and a powerhouse performance by Lopez, who’s always in control.