FILM REVIEW – HUSTLERS. With Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity. 109 minutes.
In telling the story of a group of strippers who decide to exploit the businessmen and power brokers who have been exploiting them – inspired, as we’re told, a true story – writer/director Lorene Scafaria takes what could have been a tired and predictable tale and takes it in unexpected directions. Scafaria wrote one of the best teen comedies of the decade (“Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and wrote and directed the underrated “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.”
HUSTLERS begins in the middle of the last decade when Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes Destiny (Constance Wu of “Crazy Rich Asians”) under her wing, teaching her both the moves and the scams that let them rake in big bucks from Wall Street types who have money to burn. Destiny, who is now supporting her grandmother, eagerly takes to the lessons and makes a lot of money, but mostly in small bills.
Then the stock market crashes, and it looks like the gravy train is over. Ramona, however, comes up with a new scam where instead of waiting to be approached by some man, they’re going to pursue the patsies whose bank accounts and credit cards they’re going to drain dry. Joined by Mercedes (Keke Palmer, who has grown up considerably since “Akeelah and the Bee”) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart of “Riverdale”), they cash in.
Scafaria mixes the laughs with serious characterizations, making Destiny the center of the story that she relates to a reporter (Julia Stiles) who wants to keep her talking about what happened as things went south. It turns out to be about female empowerment, as these women who are near or at the bottom of the social order decide to take control of their own lives. What they’re doing is unethical, immoral, and even criminal, but are their victims any better? Indeed, it’s when Destiny has second thoughts about one of their marks that the comedy starts to take a back seat.
Lopez is outstanding in a role different from much of her previous work. Ramona sees her ability to make money off of looking sexy is nearing an expiration date, and can be ruthless, yet she also shows compassion for her “sisters” heading in the same direction. It is her best performance in quite some time. Wu isn’t playing a total innocent – Destiny had worked at a prior club – but she’s ready to be Ramona’s apt pupil and, ultimately, her partner in crime. Palmer and Reinhart offer strong support, and those who only know Reinhart as the “good girl” Betty Cooper on “Riverdale” will see a different side of her as the stripper with a weak stomach.
Like Scafaria’s previous films, “Hustlers” takes you down a path that you think is familiar. By the time you realize it’s something different, you’ll already have been drawn in. Just keep your eyes on your wallet.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.