Sometimes a good movie is all about the performance, not the content.
Once adrift on an endless cycle of middling romantic comedies and voice-over work, Jennifer Lopez delivers her best work in more than two decades as a stripper looking to swindle rich men at any cost.
“Hustlers” provides the talented former Golden Globe nominee her most challenging role in years and is the best film to star Lopez since 1998’s “Out of Sight.”
Based on a 2015 New York magazine feature about dancers at New York City’s infamous Scores men’s club, “Hustlers” takes audiences into the world of adult entertainment as Dorothy works at a downtown strip club to make ends meet and take care of her aging grandmother. When she becomes mentored by veteran stripper Ramona, the pair begin a Robin Hood-esque scheme of milking rich stockbrokers for their own profit.
In literal terms, “Hustlers” is a film about strippers, but it’s the endless, relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar that fuels the fire and not the shock value of exposed breasts. It’s a film that cares more about who these women are than what they do for a living.
“Hustlers” is far from flawless, but director Lorene Scafaria makes perfect use of her talented ensemble cast, especially Lopez in a career-best turn as a veteran stripper turned criminal mastermind.
Lopez becomes an instant contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination with a compelling, layered turn as Ramona.
The brilliance of casting Lopez is that viewers are unable to fully separate Lopez’s cult-like celebrity from her performance in the film, making Ramona’s entire character arc naturally complex and more intriguing.
This imprinting of pop culture status has the same effect on viewers that Denzel Washington finally going bad in 2001’s “Training Day” or Ben Affleck being unnervingly charming in 2014’s “Gone Girl” had on their performances when the films came out.
This isn’t to say Lopez doesn’t bring anything to the table besides her notoriety. Her ability to calculate situations and adapt her personality to fit changes in tone works exceptionally well amid the film’s varying narrative structure.
Lopez demonstrates immense control in her performance as if Ramona were metering out her actions like a well-choreographed dance.
Her presence dominates the screen from start to finish and yet always feels elusively just out of reach, helping audiences to share Dorothy’s idolization of Ramona almost to the point of mythicizing her.
The film is also confirmation that the promise Constance Wu showed transitioning from television to the silver screen with last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was no fluke.
As Dorothy, Wu carries the emotional burden of “Hustlers” as well as narrates large segments of the film in a very knowing homage to “Goodfellas.” She does a great job of building Dorothy out of simple naivety into a more complex, confident character as Ramona takes her under her wing.
Both Wu and Lopez offer performances that compellingly draw viewers in and then push them away again as the moral ambiguity of their actions resonates more harshly over the course of the film.
Scafaria draws great performances from the film’s secondary cast, which often feel like extended cameos in comparison to the screen time for Wu and Lopez.
Julia Styles brings much needed gravitas to the film as a reporter investigating the women, while Keke Fisher and Lili Reinhart are exceptional as Ramona and Dorothy’s co-conspirators. Rapper Cardi B is a boisterous on-screen presence that distracts only slightly from the overall storyline as a fellow stripper.
The film is exceptional visually, especially in the dimly lit world of New York’s nightlife. Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl vibrate the film with electricity as audiences pulsate their way around the strip club. The expert use of light and camera placement puts viewers right in the center of the action while still feeling like a third-party observer.
Structurally, the film borrows liberally from filmmakers Scafaria certainly admires like Martin Scorsese and there’s probably one too many montage sequences better left on the cutting room floor.
“Hustlers” pairs perfectly with the 2015 Oscar-nominated dramedy “The Big Short,” which also closely examines the world of high-end New York business during the 2008 financial crisis.
This unlikely hit opened well at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, usually a breakout point for eventual award winners. “Hustlers” shouldn’t become a major contender come Oscar season, although a nomination for Lopez is certainly a possibility.
A film that should prove just as popular commercially as its strong critical reception, “Hustlers” is well worth a trip to the movie theater to catch with a large audience for Lopez’s mesmerizing work alone.