If you had any doubts about the star status of Jennifer Lopez, they should be dispelled by one shot in writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s exhilarating comedy-drama Hustlers. J-Lo is instantly recognisable, still, even shot from behind, swaggering down an NYC sidewalk in a Juicy Couture velour hoodie and skin-tight Koral leggings, a late-noughties throwback with an appealingly light-hearted bounce in her step. It would make a fine opening shot for a movie, but in fact this arrives on the downswing in Scafaria’s crime story, based on a real-life scam reported by New York magazine.
Certificate 15 109m 36s
Director Lorene Scafaria
Destiny Constance Wu
Ramona Jennifer Lopez
Elizabeth Julia Stiles
Justice Mette Towley
Lopez’s actual entrance, as pole dancer Ramona, is pure showstopper. She glides on to the stage of the strip club where our cautious, exploited heroine Destiny (Constance Wu) works, dressed in a mere suggestion of Lurex and rhinestone, and balanced on six-inch heels. Scafaria smartly sidesteps the male gaze for the most part, and Ramona’s performance on the pole, bending, flexing and hanging in mid-air, is an astonishing feat of athleticism. The movements of her perfectly tanned and toned flesh signify elite gymnastics rather than sleazy titillation – yet instead of handing her a medal, the clientele rain down an improbable cascade of dollar bills. Ramona registers Destiny’s open-mouthed awe with one of the script’s juiciest one-liners: “Does the money make you horny?”
It certainly does. Hustlers is the story of how Destiny and Ramona hook up, first as dance partners and then as thieves-in-arms. Working at the club is presented as a fairly joyless grind at the best of times – ie when the Wall Street clientele stroll in with cash to spare (“2007 was the fuckin’ best!” sighs Destiny of the night when an R&B celebrity came to the club).
Post-crash, the tips are leaner and the punters meaner, so the women form a robber gang – which you can interpret as a needs-must graft or sweet sociological revenge, depending on your moral stance. It’s to this cleverly written film’s credit that it leaves such ethical questions open, but definitely not unexplored. Ramona ranks their customers by income, but uses that as a marker of their inherent corruption, and she keeps her own counsel right up to and including the film’s peach of a final line – as crisp a metaphor for 21st-century US economics as you could wish for.
Wu is a cautious and endearing lead, and Lopez’s undeniable charisma only seems to elevate her co-star rather than dwarf her. Ramona is an enigma, and from the moment she flings open her coat and invites “Climb into my fur,” we’re never exactly sure what she is thinking, or how decent a person she will turn out to be. Whereas Destiny inhabits her stage name – the film explains fully what motivates each choice she makes. Which, of course, allows the audience to follow her vicariously into a rabbit hole of sex, drugs and grand larceny.
At heart Hustlers is a bit retro, both a callback to the ditzy gold-diggers of the 1930s and a high-energy, montage-heavy crime caper in the Scorsese vein, as these likeable good-gals turn the tables on Wall Street’s most lascivious wolves. A wisely chosen soundtrack and music-star cameos from the likes of Cardi B, Lizzo and (joyously) Usher provide pop-culture thrills, but it’s those two intense lead performances and Scafaria’s sizzling script that make Hustlers such a pleasurable dance.