There’s no doubt the buzz will fade over the next few months, but who knew Jennifer Lopez had an Oscar-caliber performance tucked away in there somewhere? Sure, she made her stamp in Hollywood with some above-average early work (1997’s Selena and 1998’s Out of Sight, in particular), but the vast majority of her filmography since then has been littered with cheesy rom-com drivel like Maid in Manhattan, The Back-Up Plan, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Now Hustlers arrives, and just like that, Lopez is worthy of being taken seriously again. Based on a true story—first brought to light in a 2015 New Yorker article by Jessica Pressler—the film chronicles the days and nights of a band of exotic dancers who decide to up their standard of living by drugging their rich male clients and fleecing them for all they were worth. On the surface that may sound like a fairly serious felony (and it is), but the women explain it away by rationalizing that the men are not only rolling in dough and but jerks of the highest order. And, besides, what are the guys going to do? Complain to the police that their hedonistic night at a strip club was marred by the loss of a few thousand bucks?
Lopez stars as Ramona Vega, the “old pro” at Moves, a New York club that was doing fine and dandy until the 2008 stock market crash; she had just taken young Dorothy (Constance Wu) under her wing when the bottom fell out, leaving the club (and all the dancers) in dire straits. After going their separate ways for a few years, Ramona and Dorothy meet up again and together hatch a plan—give the re-emerging high rollers a combination of ecstasy (to make them happy) and ketamine (to make them forget how much of a “bill” they rack up) and then split the profits with each other and the club. “You see what these Wall Street guys did to this country?” Ramona tells Dorothy early on. “They stole from everybody, and not one of them went to jail.” Sounds reasonable enough.
Almost immediately business takes off, leading Ramona to expand the operation, bringing in Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and then more and more ladies until it becomes its own pseudo-cottage industry (they all call themselves “sisters” throughout). Life is good, money is rolling in, and no one is getting hurt (except, well, financially), so of course it’s only a matter of time before the bottom falls out.
Told mostly through flashbacks, as journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, playing the Pressler character) interviews Dorothy, Hustlers is a fascinating peek behind the velvet rope. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) gives us what’s being called Goodfellas with G-strings, but it’s much more. Powerhouse performances from Lopez and Wu, accented by solid turns from Reinhart and Palmer (plus a couple of nifty cameos, from Cardi B and Lizzo) help elevate the film into a serious discussion as one of the more surprising and noteworthy films of the year. It’s not award fodder certainly (no, not even for Lopez), but what could have been a Showgirls-like disaster instead arrives as a compelling film that will have you rooting for the bad guys (er, gals), even as you try to decide whether they really are all that bad.