Jennifer Lopez, playing a boss-bitch stripper drugging and stealing from the rich, is the star of 2019’s most subversive movie. J-Lo as a stiletto-heeled Robin Hood.
Who predicted that?
“Hustlers” will go down as one of the great crowd-pleasers of 2019. It’s a kick-ass piece of pop entertainment that triples as a raging bodyslam of toxic masculinity while intelligently critiquing late-period Capitalism. It’s also funny, neon cinematic and moves like a speeding bullet train.
But the key to “Hustlers” — which was made by women, with women, for women — is being so resolutely female without the excessive moralizing. You know, the everything-works-out-if-you’re-just-a-good-person or everything-is-bad-and-everyone-is-oppressed fantasies Hollywood is so fond of selling.
This movie is oh-so 2019. It’s made with a woman’s eye, has a strong message of female empowerment, features cameos from the current pop music vanguard in Cardi B and Lizzo. But the absence of overly obvious feminist-evangilizing without compromising its critical messaging makes “Hustlers” all the more refreshing and vital. We need more movies like this.
The plot, based on the 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, tells the story of Destiny (Constance Wu, also excellent), a “stripper with a heart of gold” who, in 2007, moves from Las Vegas to New York City to care for her grandmother. She finds employment at Moves, where Lopez’s top-earning Ramona rules the roost (her early dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” so well done, establishes this) and takes Destiny under her glitter-covered wing.
The good times get rolling for Destiny and Ramona. Its all designer handbags, Cadillac Escalades and financial independence. Usher even rolls into the club one night.
Without warning, the 2008 Wall Street crisis hits, and the Cristal and Benjamins stop raining. Destiny and Ramona devise a plan to get their groove back: Lure wealthy Wall Street men, get them so messed up they hand over their Platinum cards willingly and drain them for all they’re worth. The hustle works. After all, these are the same people responsible for almost bankrupting the entire country.
Eventually, things get complicated.
While Lopez’s performance will definitely garner some Oscar talk, the biggest props here belong to director Lorene Scafaria, whose previous directorial output had been limited to a pair of fairly bland dramedies that made little to no noise at the box office.
Apparently all Scafaria needed was the right material with the right cast to work with because this film should shoot her career out of the proverbial cannon.
Contrast this film with last year’s male-directed “Ocean’s 8,” a female-cast-driven caper film with all the star power in the world that was nonetheless a complete dud— contrived, lifeless and, worst of all, boring.
For Scafaria to take material rife for exploitation, stripping, and craft a delicate balancing act of a film — sensitive to the plight of women trying to get theirs in a man’s world while owning the sexuality of the material — demonstrates the deft touch of an extremely talented female filmmaker. Her movie doesn’t run and hide from its depiction of the sexuality of the business — it revels in it. Owns it. Makes it cinematic.
If this is the direction Hollywood wants to take adult-oriented entertainment in the future — sensitive and statement-making but remembering above all else that the theater-going experience is supposed to be fun — well, I am here for it. Even the end credits are a revelation— a bright, fluorescent exclamation point on one of the movie-going year’s most pleasant surprises.