Based on the 2015 article by Jessica Pressler (played here by Julia Stiles) which appeared in New York magazine, “Hustlers” recounts the brazen story of a group of strippers led by the assertive Ramona (Jennifer Lopez in her best performance since 1998’s “Out of Sight”), a veteran pole-dancing aficionado, who cut out the middle man by going rogue to drug and scam their rich clients by maxing out their credit cards.
Good as Lopez is, Constance Wu delivers the film’s finest performance as Ramona’s protégé Destiny. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart make up the rest of the female crew while two of radio’s most played artists, Cardi B. and Lizzo, make appearances as exotic dancers in the seductive drama filled with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler”), the film gives us a fictionalized version of the true events that began in 2007 when a group of dancers from New York’s legendary Scores strip club decided to play Robin Hood.
The names have been changed, but the heart of the story remains intact. The men were jerks, the women were ruthless, and yet underneath all the sexual tension, booze, and drugs, “Hustlers” moves with empathy in mind. There are moments of compunction in Scafaria’s story, mostly at the expense of Wu’s character, but no matter how bad things get for these men it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them even when they’re sobbing about not being able to pay the mortgage or take care of an autistic son.
The film jumps back and forth between 2015, as journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) interviews Destiny (Constance Wu) about the Robin Hood scheme, and 2007 the year it all began and one year before the stock market crash that caused the roof to come crashing down on the strippers as their wealthy regulars all but vanished.
The energy among the exotic dancers is electrifying backstage as the camaraderie between the women is a bit overwhelming for newcomer Destiny. The swift pacing highlighted by Todd Banhazl's cinematography leads to a tension-building crescendo as Jennifer Lopez hits the stage as veteran stripper Ramona to show up the other women half her age with a pole dancing routine that will forever go down as one of the cinema’s greatest moments of 2019.
The 50-year old actress works the pole like a Cirque du Soleil performer after training with choreographer Johanna Sapakie months before filming.
Later, on the rooftop, Ramona is visited by Destiny as the veteran performer takes a cigarette break. It’s a bonding moment between the two characters who grow closer than sisters. Destiny becomes Romana’s protégé as she’s taught how to work the pole by the seasoned pro who also introduces the newbie to some of her wealthy clients. Scafaria gives the audience all access to the champagne room where the richest of the rich are pampered with lap dances and erotic shows if their credit cards are approved, or the cash keeps coming. Many of the strip club’s clients are wealthy Wall Street brokers who shell out in excess of $10,000 per visit.
At one time Martin Scorsese was offered a chance to direct the film but he passed. However, his spirit is felt throughout Scafaria’s film that feels like a strip club version of “Goodfellas” with Constance Wu providing the Ray Liotta narration.
When the financial crisis hits in 2008 everything changes for the employees of the once-prosperous Manhattan strip bar. Ramona takes a job working at Old Navy for an idiot store manager while Destiny who’s now raising a child can’t seem to find a job because of her lack of retail experience.
That’s when Ramona comes up with a scheme that involves reaching out to her wealthy clients from the past, drugging them, and then maxing out their credit cards. In one funny scene, Ramona and Destiny try several MDMA-ketamine recipes before settling on the right concoction to knockout their targets who are too messed up to function but responsive enough to sign the credit card receipt.
Mercedes (Keke Palmer from “Scream Queens”) and “Riverdale’s” Lili Reinhart as Annabelle join Ramona and Destiny to form the strip club version of “Ocean’s 8” as the women perfect the art of scamming the wealthy men until it all comes crashing down.
It’s easy to discount “Hustlers” as a popcorn and soda movie which is why the film takes the audience by surprise with the first-rate performances by Jennifer Lopez and an even better Constance Wu. Pop stars Cardi B. and Lizzo elicit applause when they’re on-screen (which is not very long) and Usher appears in a funny cameo that causes every stripper in the bar to get on stage and perform for the singer who at this juncture in his career was still feeling the effects of the smash single “Yeah” featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris.
The film is based on a true story that was the basis for Jessica Pressler’s 2015 article “The Hustlers at Scores.” There are plenty of funny moments in the film and good performances by the cast but the film could have used a bit more apprehension on the part of the female Robin Hoods who seem to carry out their scam with the same ease as the female crew in “Ocean’s 8.”
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday, September 13 in theaters nationwide