Lorene Scafaria is a filmmaker whose career thus far has comprised of elevating subpar material. Her Steve Carell/Keira Knightley apocalypse dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World effectively played with genre expectations. Her Susan Sarandon/Rose Byrne mother-daughter drama The Meddler took a different look at a film that in lesser hands could have appeared very mawkish and emotionally comfortable. She has proven herself to be a filmmaker with a clear vision and understanding of the complexities and nuances of storytelling, and her latest film is her biggest gamble so far. It’s also her best.
In 2007 New York, Dorothy (Constance Wu) just started working at a strip club. She’s instantly mesmerized by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran stripper who becomes something of a mentor to her. After the housing crash of 2008, the club has fewer clients, and Ramona comes up with a more creative way for the ladies to make money.
This is based on a true story from a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler that’s framed as a modern-day Robin Hood tale about a group of strippers who steal from the rich and give to themselves. The moral implications of this are not lost on Scafaria, who doesn’t demonize these women for their actions but doesn’t precisely champion them either. She uses a framing device where Dorothy is telling her story to a journalist (Julia Stiles) who is at turns, entertained, and stunned by what these women did. Wu is doing her best screen work to date here, but she’s overshadowed at every turn by the real reason to watch this movie.
Oh yes, the real surprise of Hustlers is the magnificent return of Jennifer Lopez. She hasn’t delivered a performance of this quality since the mid-90s. Since then, she’s mostly made the same romantic comedy repeatedly for 20 years. To be fair, it works (see my review of Second Act for more on this), but Hustlers is a thrilling reminder that she’s a real actress, and she knows how and when to sink her teeth into a genuinely juicy performance. As seasoned stripper Ramona, Lopez comes across as half Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike and half Robert De Niro in Goodfellas. She’s got a heart of gold, and she loves the women of her chosen family, but she’s dead-set on the end goal and will not compromise. Lopez is doing revelatory, empathetic, and nuanced work, and this will likely be remembered as the performance of her career.
In supporting roles, we have Keke Palmer and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart as two women who join the team later on. Neither actress has a lot to do, and they’re both expendable to the story. The narrative is primarily focused on the Dorothy/Ramona friendship and how the toll this ongoing insanity in the background takes on that friendship. When they’re required to call in reinforcements, it’s clear these women are equally uncomfortable with the heist, so as a result, they don’t stay in the story that long.
Also, if you’re coming to this hoping to see a lot of Cardi B or Lizzo, you should know these are essentially glorified cameos. After the 2008 crash happens (about 30 minutes in), we don’t see either of these women for the remainder of the film. Cardi B basically does a version of her stage persona, and she’s funny and entertaining to watch, but at the same time, you’re glad she’s not in more of it. Lizzo, on the other hand, seems like she could really act. I would like to see her more onscreen moving forward.
In the end, Hustlers is a progressive and exciting stripper heist film that borrows a great deal from movies like Goodfellas, but it has got a lot of interesting tricks up its sleeve cinematically and narratively. As a result, it always feels like its own new, empowering thrillingly alive thing. Tightly plotted, twisty, and never exploitative, Scafaria isn’t interested in how you feel about what these women did. In the end, the most important thing going on is the relationships and what these characters mean to each other – the secrets they keep and the choices they make. Hustlers is one of the best surprises of the year.