Synopsis: A group of exotic dancers get their revenge on wealthy, drunk and abusive clients by maxing out their credit cards after they’ve passed out.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lizzo, Cardi B
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: A few years back, a different side to the world of male strippers was shown in Magic Mike and its superior sequel Magic Mike XXL. Both films went beyond the flesh flash to give insight into a different walk (lapdance?) of life, with the results trending more toward the comedic than the dramatic. Solidifying the rising star of Channing Tatum and partly based on his own life, the movie opened the door for A-list talent to approach parallel roles with confidence. The first film was also notable for being one of the first stops of the infamous McConaissance, highlighting Matthew McConaughey’s return to fine form that wound up with him just narrowly missing being nominated for an Oscar for his work. There’s similar Oscar buzz surrounding Hustlers, another true-life tale of strippers behaving badly, but this time I think the performance in question has the goods to go all the way.
Based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler and adapted by director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a group of exotic dancers that started bilking their customers for thousands of dollars through an elaborate scheme involving unscrupulous measures. Sticking close to the source material, Scafaria changes the names and softens a few of the situations but manages to remain remarkably in step with Pressler’s original story. The article is a good read and the movie is a decent watch, though neither linger substantially in the memory long after you’ve completed them.
In 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) is working at a popular NYC strip club under the name Destiny but not seeing much of a future in the work. Pulling in pennies compared to the wads of cash her colleagues take home, she’s barely scraping by in the New Jersey house she shares with her grandmother. One night, she catches an onstage performance from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Second Act) and witnesses the way men literally throw mountains of bills at her feet. Going beyond mere stage presence, Ramona possesses an immeasurable “it” factor that can’t be taught…but she takes Destiny under her wing anyway. Together, the two women become a dynamic duo…until the financial crisis throws everything into a tailspin.
Though she leaves the club life for a while, eventually Destiny returns to a much different climate and without her partner. When she crosses paths with Ramona again, she finds her old pal has a different way of earning money and, while it might not be on the up and up, it’s a lot easier than what they’d been required to do before. Looping in two former dancers (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise and Lili Reinhart, The Kings of Summer), the ladies begin targeting wealthy men and drugging them, bringing them back to the club, running their credit cards up, and pocketing the cash. The men don’t report it because they can’t remember what exactly happened, for all they know they had a great time and just passed out. For a while, this system works but, as with most organized crime set-ups, the good times don’t last and soon things start to fall apart.
What keeps the film interesting at every turn is Lopez doing some of her all-time best work as Ramona, the ringleader of the operation. While the brains of the business eventually fall to Destiny when Ramona’s focus strays elsewhere, the original orchestration of the scam was Ramona’s and Lopez makes the character’s motivations understandable if not downright likable. Lopez is in killer shape and has several meme-worthy moments – it’s totally likely an Oscar nomination is in her future for her performance, though I wouldn’t exactly engrave the statute quite yet. As good as she is, I’m not completely convinced it’s an Oscar-winning role.
Less successful is Wu, struggling in vain to hold our attention anytime Lopez is off-screen (and anytime she is onscreen, actually) and the movie is weakened substantially for it. Giving rather blandly blank line readings that are missing key emotive shifts, Wu doesn’t build on the promise she showed so well in Crazy Rich Asians. You’re tempted to blame Lopez on shining too brightly but there’s a generosity of spirit in what Lopez is doing, gamely sharing the screen with anyone/everyone and Wu should have taken better advantage of this. In all fairness, Reinhart and Palmer are kinda duds as well so Wu gets little help from them either. Boo to the marketing materials flaunting Lizzo and Cardi B on the poster for the film, both appear briefly in glorified cameos.
Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) keeps the movie going at a good clip, bouncing between Destiny in 2007 and again in 2014 when Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, Closed Circuit) is interviewing her for a magazine article about her crimes. The narrative device works well, though I missed the article’s slight assertation that Destiny might not be the most reliable of narrators. In Scafaria’s eyes, Destiny is playing straight with Elizabeth and it colors too inside the lines to make the character truly come to life with any added dimension. While it’s a smart move to have a woman in the director’s chair to tell this story, there are some elements that feel too restrained or, dare I say it, respectful. Taking place in a hard-edged NYC strip club, this one happens to be the one in which no one is naked 98% of the time. I don’t need nudity, don’t get me wrong, but a little more authenticity would have helped.
While the movie is fun, it’s rarely more than your standard caper film with the ultimate expected dénouement lurking around the corner at the 90 minute mark. I kept wanting things to get taken up a notch or pivot in a different direction but found the material and some of the performances didn’t measure up, especially when Lopez seems to be so polished.