Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is based on a 2015 New York Magazine article about a group of exotic dancers who essentially roofied a bunch of finance men and stole their money via credit card fraud. On first blush, it sounds like an odd narrative for an entire feature film, and frankly it runs out of steam relatively quickly. However, thanks to a cast that includes a comeback sure to generate plenty of headlines, the film has more legs than may be expected.
Constance Wu, hot off the mega success of Crazy Rich Asians and her Fresh off the Boat TV series, stars as Dorothy, a former stripper living in a well-appointed home. She sits down with Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) in order to tell the tale of malfeasance she helped conduct. Through this retelling, we meet the center of the scam, a wise and wily dancer named Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez) whose drive and ambition mirror those she steals from. She takes financial gain from the unsuspecting in ways not ethically dissimilar to those that caused the 2008 financial crash.
The central moral conceit of the film is the question: if one steals from thieves, just who’s the victim? We revel in the comeuppance of the arrogant and oft-abusive clients of the strip club, who are then set upon by a group who turn their lustful acts against them.
Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B are among the other entertainers at the club, headed by Mama (Mercedes Ruehl), who helps keep them all in line. Famous visitors like Usher make their way in, raining dollar bills and being treated right, while the slimy finance guys get off less easily.
Produced by Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay as part of their Gloria Sanchez Productions, the film presents itself as part thriller, part dark comedy. It has a Scarface-like vibe with the rise of a criminal group, and the setting of the various clubs provides enough smoky, sticky atmosphere to contrast with the cool suburban look of Dorothy’s current abode.
Unfortunately, the film never quite manages to get the tone right, dancing between the various elements and slipping along the way. Many of the performers appear flat, and the script engenders little depth save for their moments within the procedural plot. Above all is Jennifer Lopez, providing an impressive physical and emotional presence that elevates this from a forgettable crime drama to a truly memorable role. It helps that most of the story revolves around her, with everyone in one way or another reacting to decisions she makes or actions she undertakes. From sliding down a pole to inviting a friend to share the warmth of a fur coat, her seductive, sly performance is the film’s greatest strength.
It’s been too long since Lopez has been given a role like this to chew on, and she bites into it with abandon. She’s so good, so charismatic, that when she’s not on screen you can really feel her absence and the film feels unbalanced. Lopez earned co-production credit, and it’s clear that she’s savvy enough to parlay this role into serious consideration come awards season.
Hustlers has moments of fun, but overall feels like a rote crime drama with little to say. Seen with an audience, the surprisingly chaste stripper film may engage, but primarily because of the stellar turn by Lopez. With a flick of her ankle on the dance stage or the strength of her ideas that help turn a minor scam into a major criminal enterprise, she elevates this film above beyond anything written in the screenplay.