PLOT Two strippers turn the tables on their wealthy clients. Based on a true story.
CAST Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu
RATED R (nudity, drug use, language)
BOTTOM LINE A high-heeled crime caper with rollicking energy and an emotional left hook. Think "Goodfellas" in glitter.
In its first few minutes, Lorene Scafaria's "Hustlers" sends a message. Yes, this is a movie about strippers. And yes, you'll see more of Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu than you probably ever imagined. Wu, as Destiny, opens the film by walking into her first night of work at a seemingly glamorous Manhattan club called Moves — but by the end of her shift she's been propositioned, insulted and cheated by nearly every man she meets.
In other words, if you came to "Hustlers" for the cinematic equivalent of a lap-dance — something steamy, erotic and gratuitously sexy — you've come to the wrong place.
What you'll get instead is a flashy, fast-moving, funny-sad story of two women who decide to exploit their exploiters and achieve what they've been told is the American dream. Based on a New York Magazine story by Jessica Pressler, "Hustlers" features a career-best performance by Lopez as Ramona, a woman with street-level business acumen, and an equally engaging turn from Wu ("Crazy Rich Asians") as a woman whose turnip-truck naivete quickly curdles. It's a terrific entry into the capitalism-run-amok genre defined by "Wall Street," "Boiler Room" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," only this time women are the anti-heroines of their own narrative.
And at the risk of making a reverse-sexist argument, it's possible that only a female filmmaker could have treated these characters with such deep empathy and respect. (Scafaria, of "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," directs from her own excellent script.)
Nearly every moment of "Hustlers" is thoroughly entertaining. The backstage banter between the working girls (played by plus size pop star Lizzo and former stripper Cardi B, among others) crackles as crudely as anything in "Magic Mike," while the club crawls with wealthy Wall Street creeps. "They can be degrading, possessive, violent — and they never get in trouble," Ramona observes. That kind of thinking sparks an idea: Why not attract rich men with the promise of sex (not difficult), then spike their drinks and run up their credit cards? What's the harm? After all, didn't these bailed-out bankers steal their money in the first place?
That isn't quite right, of course, but Lopez and Wu create such a tender bond between their dead-end characters that we want them to succeed. In a man's world, the only place these women feel safe is with each other. In fact, "Hustlers" is virtually devoid of male characters; the support cast is rounded out by Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer as Ramona's helpmates, while Julia Stiles adds a sober note as a level-headed journalist. (Mario Polit, a Long Beach resident, plays a NYPD detective who breaks up the fun.)
Throughout "Hustlers" is a keen awareness of capitalism and its discontents — the endless search for wealth, status and new retail purchases. Or, as a woman in Pressler's article rather profoundly puts it: "I need to decipher the difference between what I want and what I need … Because the want of wanting is what’s killing me.”