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Friday, September 13, 2019

Hustlers

If seeing Jennifer Lopez giving her best performance since her acting peak in Selena and Out of Sight was the only reason to see Hustlers, that would be reason enough.  Her performance is transformative here, reminding us of what she can truly do when she's paired with a great script and a director who knows how to bring out the best of her.

Fortunately, writer-director Lorene Scafaria has given us so much more than Lopez's best on screen work in almost two decades.  Hustlers is just a ton of fun to watch, full of energy, and is the rare film that left me wanting more in a good way.  I wanted the film to run longer than it did, so I could spend more time with these characters, and exploring their relationships.  In telling the true story of a group of strippers who lured in wealthy Wall Street moguls, drugged them, and then took them for millions, Scafaria confidently strides the line between telling a compelling crime drama narrative, and a genuinely entertaining female-bonding comedy.  She is obviously drawing from Scorsese's Goodfellas here, using some of the same camera and visual techniques, as well as a fun but a bit on the nose soundtrack scoring the scenes.  However, she still finds a way to make this story her own, make it engaging, and most of all, make it tremendously entertaining.

Inspired by an article run in New York magazine, we are introduced to the movie's world through a young woman who goes by the stage name of Destiny (Constance Wu), who seems to be in over her head when she first starts working at a strip club, entertaining wealthy Wall Street clients who are flush with cash.  She's in the line of work to support the grandmother who raised her since she was a child (Wai Ching Ho), and when she first starts out, she doesn't seem to have the slightest clue about what to do.  Men are attracted to her, but she hasn't yet learned the ropes.  That's when she meets Ramona (Lopez), the most popular lady at the joint, who sees something in Destiny, and wonders why she isn't making the big bucks like she does.  Ramona was once a cover girl for magazines, but now she's here, supporting a young daughter, and making huge amounts of money as one of the club's leading attractions.

With Ramona's help, Destiny learns the tricks of the trade, as well as starts both a personal and professional relationship, with both women creating a seductive routine together for men's pleasure.  Destiny starts making some real money, buys some nice things for herself, and helps her grandmother.  She's even able to leave stripping behind for a short while.  But then, Destiny goes through a bad marriage, has a baby, and the 2008 recession hits.  She goes back to the club she once worked at, only to find it in a slump.  The Wall Street people who once occupied the joint just don't have the money to spend anymore, and most of her friends from her past days are now gone.

Needing to make some real money again, Ramona concocts a scheme.  Destiny helps her develop a drug made of MDMA and ketamine, and then they go out looking for wealthy and powerful married men.  They flirt with the men, drug their drink with the mix they develop, and then drag the men back to the club in order to drain his credit card while he's in a stupor.  If the men complain about the massive amount of money suddenly missing from their account, the ladies will just tell them they had a great time, spent too much, and that they probably shouldn't tell their wives about what happened.  They recruit two other women from the club into their scheme - Merecedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and this creates the strong bond between the four women that carries most of the film.

Hustlers follows the four through their highs and lows, and expertly juggles the multiple angles that the film requires.  We see Ramona and Destiny developing a truly strong bond with each other, and as the other ladies enter the scheme, we see that bond grow larger and stronger.  It is important that the film stay laser-focused on their lives and relationships, otherwise the lead characters would probably come across as shallow or horrible.  There is definitely a fun, party vibe to a lot of the film, but there are also hard doses of reality throughout, such as when Destiny is brought down by financial difficulties, which leads to the hatching of the scheme in the first place.  The screenplay could have definitely focused a bit more on the moral questions about what these women are doing, but the emphasis that it places on the women at the center of it helps us at least see their desperation, and allows us to follow them to the end, when the plan inevitably starts to fall apart at some point.

Of the performances, it will obviously be Lopez who gets all the attention, with the effortless way she plays all the sides of Ramona.  She's a mentor, a warm mothering type, and a scheming ringleader who is willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top.  She is more commanding than she's been in a film in a long time.  However, this should not take away anything from Constance Wu's performance, which is just as strong, and as the most definitive arc.  She starts as a wide-eyed innocent, becomes a pro, willingly helps develop the scheme to fleece the money, and creates such a powerful, dramatic portrayal in certain scenes that she shows even more star potential than she did in last year's Crazy Rich Asians.  We feel for her, and we feel for the sister-like relationship that she builds with Lopez.  It makes the film's final moments between the two women all the more cutting and emotional.

This time period after the Summer blockbusters have gone, and the big Fall films are on the horizon, is usually quite slow, so to have a total blast of energy like Hustlers hit theaters right about now is very welcome indeed.  It's not just a great time, it's also a truly engaging experience from top to bottom.

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