A Best Actress Oscar nomination for Jennifer Lopez? You better believe it. Her see-it-to-believe-it performance in Hustlers is that dazzling, that deep, that electrifying. At the Toronto Film Festival, where art films get the most attention, this glitzy true-crime knockout about New York strippers who take their drooling Wall Street clients to the cleaners, has been the talk of the town in advance of the movie’s national release this week. And for good reason. Hustlers promises and delivers a party-hard, wild ride. No one expected insights that pull you up short.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria hits a career peak for scrappily adapting a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler (a take-charge Julia Stiles using another name). The writer profiled a group of exotic dancers at Scores about facing criminal charges for scamming the men who treated them as objects for sale. Hustlers doesn’t pussyfoot about what goes on in those “champagne rooms” off stage. The intent is not to exploit but to show how women manage to live and work in a predatory man’s world. The question is control. And in Scafaria’s fiercely funny provocation of a film — there’s no running from the shadows — it’s the women who seize control. All together now — it’s about time.
If you want to know what a star’s entrance is — watch Lopez take the screen as if by divine right. As Ramona, a dancer who can work a pole better than rivals half her age, she slithers and shimmies on stage (to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”) with a jaw-dropping finesse that’s as acrobatic as it is erotic. Dudes throw money at her. Academy members should follow by throwing their votes behind Lopez, who acts the role as well as she embodies it, finding reserves of feeling beneath a tough-cookie exterior. Aside from such early films as Selena and Out of Sight, Lopez has had to settle for being the best thing in movies that are indifferent or worse (remember Gigli?). In Hustlers, her talent blossoms into something that takes your breath away.
Even better, this time the movie is worthy of her talent. At a notorious Manhattan strip club, where celebs mingle with rich assholes of every stripe, Ramona is the queenpin to eager pupils played by the Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, Scream Queen’s Keke Palmer and rap divas Cardi B and Lizzo in cameos you wish would go on longer. And as the reporter interviews the women, stories emerge that have the sting of reality not Hollywood. Still, the laser focus of Ramona’s attention fixes on Destiny, a newbie that a stellar Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat) invests with flinty vitality and a touching vulnerability. For Destiny, Ramona’s blunt advice can be scary. “Drain the clock, not the cock,” says Ramona about the limits of fulfilling some dude’s sexual fantasies.
Scafaria doesn’t hide the fact that the job can be degrading. But she also shows us women — some abused children themselves and others single mothers — now being exploited by club owners who expect them to survive on tips they have to split with management. And when the 2008 recession hits, a plan is hatched. What if the women drug their big-spending clients with memory-blurring cocktails, max out their credit cards and share the profits with the club? Ramona rationalizes that these Wall Street wolves are hustling their clients on a way grander scale. As a movie, Hustlers walks a moral tightrope that can leave audiences queasy. But Scafaria is not in the judging business about strippers and sex workers. What she illuminates, with the help of a dynamite cast ignited by Lopez, is the sight of women in the workplace empowering each other. This you don’t want to miss.