Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, J-Lo, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles (but really, JLo is in this!)
MPAA rating: R, for butts, boobs, blow, and bad bitches
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes
by Jaime Davis
I was just minding my business you know? And then all of a sudden, bam! Out of the blue, J-Lo showed up and changed my life forever. She made it fun.
Flashback to 1999, USA, Philadelphia, South Street, Tower Records. A 19 year-old Jaime is working the best job that has ever existed in all the universes as a clerk and buyer at the famously failed record store. One day the art department folks bring in a monstrously-sized piece of “art” they made to showcase the impending release of J-Lo’s debut album, On the 6. We the jaded, with our mountains of musical references and musical god touchstones and back catalogs of favorite underground bands sniggered behind the back of Ms. Lopez’s artwork - she was a Fly Girl! A mildly talented actress! Please. This album was gonna be stupid and could quite possibly ruin her career. Case closed.
And then we started playing it regularly in the store, and the jokes kindaaa stopped coming as the grooves made their way into our hearts and more and more people flocked in for the CD. Your dear, sweet, judgemental Jaime couldn’t deny the earnest bliss of “If You Had My Love”, “Feelin’ So Good”, “Waiting for Tonight” (my personal fave), and known banger “Let’s Get Loud”.
Fast forward to 2019 (holy shit I just did the math on that), USA, Philadelphia, Columbus Blvd, Riverview. I’m sitting in a packed theater, in the gd front row because there were no other seats available (even though I arrived at the screening 20 minutes early), breathlessly watching J-Lo’s entrance in Hustlers - a sublime, badass, sexy as all hell introduction to her magnetic Ramona Vega set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”, a pretty genius bit of music supervision. This is also club newbie Destiny’s (Constance Wu) first glimpse of Ramona; Destiny, me, and I bet 87.4% of that theater had the same look on their faces as she made her entrance.
Jennifer Lopez is 50. 50 years-old. You may have seen clips of her in concert, or performing live on tv, but in Hustlers, she really can kick, stretch, and kick. She certainly is not your mother’s Sally O’Malley. Is this what 50 year-olds look like now? Can I sign myself up for this in advance?
Hustlers, based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, begins in the heady pre-2008 days of Wall Street money moves that made people ridiculously, disgustingly, fantastically rich. This isn’t Destiny’s first rodeo - she’s already worked at another club, but this one is the real deal. She’s got that doe-eyed new girl thing going on, and as she fumbles to make any decent cash or make real friends, that’s when she spies Ramona. Ramona is klassy with a K, street smart, a real bad bitch who could give Angela Bassett a run for her money as facilitator of a Bad Bitch Support Group. She knows how to read her “clients,” the mostly douchey dirtbags with the deepest of pockets and dirtiest of mouths (not to mention minds). Destiny doesn’t always have the ideal “look” that some of the Wall Street clientele want (in an opening scene, suits cat call her with “Lucy Liu”) and she may not be the best dancer, but goddamn it if she isn’t smart. Good with numbers. Organized. Intuitive. Instinctual. She gets Ramona to show her the ropes, and before you know it, Destiny is making a lot and a lot of money.
Then 2008 hits, and we all know what happened in the US as a result of that economic dumpster fire. Suddenly, and unsurprisingly, the hedge fund suits and PE bros and Wall Street jackholes are far, far from popping bottles in the Champagne Room. Destiny finds herself on hard times again, having left to raise her newborn daughter virtually on her own. And like many folks caught in depressed socioeconomic cycles, she eventually returns to the club where she originally met Ramona, only to find that it is not the same. New girls have overtaken the ranks, offering $300 blow jobs to clients as freely as Olive Garden hands out unlimited buttered and garlicked breadsticks to its customers. But all is not lost - she sees Ramona again, only she’s different, too. Her business is marketing now, or rather, fishing.
And that’s where the real hustle of Hustlers gets down - and I would say, the real fun begins. I hate to be insensitive about it, because some real-life men were in fact real victims in this, not just because they were slipped a potent cocktail of ketamine and MDMA and fleeced for days, but because, despite what our heroines thought, some of these men did in fact have a lot to lose (houses, jobs, marriages, etc.). But I can’t divorce myself from the fact that it’s a real treat to see women have some fun á la Jordan Belfort or George Jung or Henry Hill for a change. I’ve spent a lot of time worshiping films that inadvertently glorify ordinary real life men who lived very extraordinary real life lives, filled with more beautiful women and cars and suits and flash and money than G-o-d but Hustlers? It’s a thrill watching these women score as they concoct, execute, procure, repeat. Yes, there’s a come-down, as we all know there is in stories like these. But Hustlers is an adrenaline rush, or should I say, a ketamine rush to the system from start to finish. It’s timely and brash and sexy and fun and inspiring. Yeah, I said it.
Inspiring because it showcases, rather entertainingly, how enterprising these women were. As mentioned, Destiny has a head for business, and with Ramona’s extensive client list, they expand their operation, adding new girls to the ranks (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart - both performers are glowing, shiny gems). As with any new venture, the problem is scaling. They get a little too big too fast, which is when the fissures appear. Cracks begin to destroy Destiny and Ramona’s dream team. New women enlisted into the business prove flaky and unreliable. Things start to unravel pretty quickly, and once it does, it’s a beautiful mess that puts Ramona and Destiny’s friendship at further odds (in the film their relationship is painted as super close though in real life that wasn’t entirely the case.) Both mothers, they understand all too well the sacrifices required of them, which eventually pull them apart.
You know what’s not a mess? Hustlers. The movie, I mean. It’s lovingly written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, superbly shot, painstakingly edited. Production design? Flawless. Costuming? Gorgeous. Soundtrack? Former Tower Records-employee-approved. And let’s talk about the acting. What might get some people in the theater door are the (welcome) additions of musical dynamos Lizzo and Cardi B in minor roles, but post-2008 they’re gone, baby, gone. And if you’ve read Pressler’s article on the subject, you know that it mostly follows Destiny’s point of view, with only a little thrown in from Ramona’s perspective. Hustlers, therefore should be the Constance Wu Show, and it mostly is - she radiates a whole new persona we haven’t yet seen in her repertoire. Seriously, Wu is proving that she is one of the most versatile actresses of her generation, and I urge Hollywood to continue casting her in more and more. But it’s hard to dispute that J-Lo owns this film, from the moment she slinks onto the stage at the club, to her galvanizing last lines of the movie. It’s Destiny we cheer for, but comeuppance and all, it’s Ramona we’re captivated by. After the film’s showing at TIFF this month, some folks have come out and not-so-shyly declared this an Oscar-worthy (if not at least nominated) performance from J-Lo. I’ve greatly enjoyed Lopez’s effervescent, agreeable presence in mostly lighter fare - like silly little fluffies The Wedding Planner and Maid In Manhattan and Monster-In-Law. But her jaw-droppingly charismatic performance in Hustlers brings her talent full circle. It’s been a while since Selena, so long that perhaps we’ve all forgotten, holy shit, she can act. If she’s not nominated for this, I will scream.
There’s a moment in Hustlers where, mid-con, J-Lo and crew struggle to get one of their too-inebriated marks situated in a Champagne Room. J-Lo laughs a little in that infectious way of hers and asks, “Isn’t this fun?” Yes, it is. It really is.