Think “Hustlers” is just about strippers ripping off lap-dance clients in a well-publicized New York skin club?
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who scripted “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” sees this “true” story in epic parable terms.
These are the She Wolves of Wall Street, working class women who screwed over The Street the way Wall Street screwed over America. And Scafaria treats them as classic antiheroines, glammed-up, sisterhood strong and when the need arose — pitiless about the “Masters of the Universe” of the 2008 Great Recession, who should have been in prison when a gang of out of work pole dancers lured them into maxing out their credit cards in the years just after that.
Scafaria and a game cast headed by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez — glittery cleavage, T-backed, tattooed and feminine to the max — strike a blow for equality in the ruthlessness they employ in carrying out their crimes, showcased on the dance floor with dazzling lighting and stripperwear, stalked into combat in the longest tracking shots this side of Tarantino.
It feels lightweight at times, with some of its rough edges rubbed off for the sake of sisterhood. But man, this caper comedy packs a punch.
Wu sheds any shred of “Crazy Rich Asians” naivete and sweetness as Destiny, a skinny dancer with a pasted-on “I need the money” smile and a lack of polish that earns her the protective pity of Ramona (Lopez) the Queen Bee of Moves, the club based on New York’s Scores, over-familiar in its day due to the constant plugging it got on Howard Stern’s radio show.
Destiny lives with her grandmother, who knows her as Dorothy. There’s something of Dorothy in the way she approaches the work, not as an innocent, but not the most competent of “new girls.” She’s not that “new” either. Moves is just a step up from the dive where she used to offer inept lap dances.
Lopez, in a showcase scene, demonstrates how to work the pole to make the faceless Johns in the audience rain bills on the stage. “Ankle hook, knee hook, table top,” selling the sultry with every move, shaking her butt, arching her back and WORK that hair, girl –WORK it.
With another dancer (stripper turned rapper Cardi B), Ramona improves Destiny’s lap dancing, and dollar bills are soon raining down.
Some of the legion of girls at the club, mothered by “Mom” (Mercedes Ruehl) bond. That’s how Ramona gets Destiny, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to join her in a self-preservation scheme when the 2008 Recession hits and the Wall Street types they’ve been sizing up, cozying up to and servicing for years suddenly are spending a lot less money at strip clubs.
After the fact, Dorothy tells this tale to a reporter, played by Julia Stiles (the “Bourne” movies) with a perfect blend of empathy and horror. Because the short cuts these ladies take to separate rich guys from their cash would make anybody blanch.
The script, based on a magazine article about the real women who did this hustling, fails to make the Robin Hood points it shoots for. And the distinctly feminine touches — shopping sprees (buying everything with stacks of dollar bills), line dancing, Christmas gift exchanges — are as cliched as any heist picture or caper comedy’s well-worn tropes.
The movie reduces the menfolk into simple marks — the pricey watch, the expensive shoes, the aggressive cheat, the power broker (Frank Whaley, the only recognizable male star in the cast) not shy about spending thousands for a single memorable night.
A hundred years of women being treated like meat in such movies makes this feel like a little payback. And it works. Only the women have agency, here.
Wu is transformed and Palmer (who had the title role in the indie “Pimp” last year) long ago left her child-star image behind. But Lopez is the stand-out in this cast, giving Ramona many facets — mother figure and real-life mother, user, cold-blooded cash hound and a polished dancer who has the muscle memory, the highlights, glitter, lip gloss and furs of a woman who has ridden this horse as far as she can take it and is ready, willing and able to “transition” into bigger paydays as demand for her stripping dries up.
“Hustlers” finds awkward laughs in female-on-male cruelty, loses its nerve in the late acts, but finds its heart in the finale. And it hits the “I don’t want to depend on anybody” empowerment message awfully hard.
It may not be the “cause” it tries to become, but if there’s justice at the box office, it will become a phenomenon.
And only Hollywood’s short memory could stand in the way of awards nominations for Lopez, who finally has a role as gritty and mercenary as the nickname she seemed ill-suited to wear at her pop star peak — “Jenny from the Block.” Ramona’s got rocks, too, and you’ll be shocked at what she did to get them.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lizzo, Julia Stiles, Mercedes Ruehl, Madeleine Brewer and Frank Whaley
Credits: Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, based on a magazine article by Jessica Pressler. An STX release.
Running time: 1: