It’s a happening for the glamorous and talented J-Lo and rehabilitation for Constance Wu.
When I saw the trailer for “Hustlers,” I recoiled. Here’s a derivative looking picture that is the female answer to “Magic Mike.” And with marketing in mind, the trailers betrayed the emotional depth of the actual narrative. Viewers expecting “Girl’s Trip” with a crime angle will be surprised, because “Hustlers” has an affecting message.
Desperate Destiny (Constance Wu) turns to dancing in a strip club to make ends meet. But when she joins the girls at a high-end establishment, she quickly realizes that the money doesn’t come easy. After being enthralled by star dancer Ramona’s electrifying stage performance (it literally rains dollar bills), she turns to the older, more experienced pro for some sage advice. And Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) is more than happy to take the new girl under her wing. In fact, when the two meet for a quick smoke break on the cold rooftop of the seedy business, it’s Ramona who wraps her full-length mink coat around Destiny, preparing her for the strip club lifestyle.
Beginning in 2007, under Ramona’s auspices, Destiny starts to pull in some real cash. She’s able to help her grandmother pay bills, and even gets a place of her own. But when Destiny becomes pregnant, she leaves the stage for a little while, only to find it hard to return. The crash of 2008 hit the club scene hard, but when all seems lost, the resourceful Ramona comes up with an idea. Why don’t they troll the bars and pick up rich men, drug them, and then empty out their bank accounts with the help of the old showbar points of sale?
Pulled from a magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “Hustlers” has fun with the bad girls and crime aspects, while still keeping it real—crime only pays until you get caught. As Ramona’s plan grows, and the big bucks roll in, you can see the toll that it takes on the women. Instead of investing and planning their escape, conspicuous consumption leads to an ever-expanding criminal enterprise. And even though Destiny and Ramona are smart, they make huge mistakes, largely the product of greed.
The two performances at the center of “Hustlers” hold it together. Surprisingly, after the glitz and sexy dances die-down, there’s something meaningful remaining. Lopez has never been better. Not only does she give Destiny, and us, a poll-dancing tutorial, but she plays Ramona not like a movie-star playing a stripper, but like an actor inhabiting a character. There is a big difference, just ask Demi Moore. It’s an impressive performance, worthy of awards recognition.
But as good as Lopez is, it’s Wu who has something to prove here. Having shown us her good girl side in the hit “Crazy Rich Asians” and then hurting her reputation by complaining publicly that “Fresh off the Boat” was renewed for another season, this film comes at a particularly important time in her young career. Wu is an undeniably good actress, and as Destiny, she is given a role that lets her do more than wear skimpy outfits and strut around. This is a story about friendship.
There are key moments in the film’s closing act that hooked me. As a means of telling the story, a journalist named Elizabeth (a well-cast Julia Stiles) interviews Destiny and Ramona. They each talk with Elizabeth separately. At first, they are guarded and carefully tip-toe around certain aspects of their wild history. But the real juicy stuff concerns what happened between the two savvy women. Why did they part ways? Can they ever fix what is broken between them?
Destiny is the focus as she probes for information about what Ramona may have said about her. At first, this seems a bit juvenile and catty—reactions that Elizabeth is happy to take advance of. But as Destiny gets more intense, you realize that she is hurting; she’s lost an important friend; there’s a longing. And Ramona feels it too. The tender nature of these sequences should resonate with anyone who fell out with someone close to them. It’s not about sex or money or power, but about trust and confidence.
“Hustlers” isn’t the movie you’re expecting.