J. Lo Should Be an Oscar Contender for ‘Hustlers’
J. Lo gives a career-best performance as the ringleader of a band of strippers who steal from their douchey Wall Street clients in one of the most fun crime thrillers of the year.
It is certainly among the best movie moments of the year, and quite possibly could rank among the greatest character entrances ever. In Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez arrives via stripper pole.
She’s playing Ramona, a veteran stripper and the main attraction at a New York City strip club where Wall Street pricks sling hundreds, right before the financial crisis of 2008. A sparkling G-string and bikini top do their best, but the truth is there is no diverting your eyes from Lopez’s abs—as much a special effect as there’s ever been in a movie—as she struts, twirls, writhes, grinds, dances, and preens. You’ve never seen the movie star exude such gritty, carnal energy. It’s as discomfiting as it is mesmerizing.
To cap it all off, the entire routine is performed to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”—“I’ve been a bad, bad girl...”—the first time that the indie rocker has licensed the song for a film. It’s the crowning achievement of a movie brimming with brilliant music cues. Jennifer Lopez. Stripping. To “Criminal.”
It is the perfect scene. To call it provocative is an understatement, but not in the way you might expect—just as Hustlers is not the kind of movie you expect when you hear about a film centering on a group of stripper thieves with Lopez, Cardi B, and Lizzo on the cast list.
Hustlers—which comes out Friday and premiered this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival—is directed by Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler), who adapted the screenplay from the 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” written and reported by Jessica Pressler. It’s a wild, subversive, long-time-coming thing, to see a movie set mostly at a strip club starring some of the most beautiful women in show business, shot with a female gaze.
The male gaze in film, otherwise known as “almost every film you’ve ever seen,” depicts women as sexual objects for the pleasure of a heterosexual male viewer or creator. The female gaze, it turns out, depicts women as... women.
That doesn’t just upend and recharacterize the strip-club scenes, but also brings a rare, energizing perspective to a genre the industry doesn’t typically give women the opportunity to write and direct. (Indeed, Scafaria was only given the director’s chair after Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay passed.) Hustlers isn’t a movie about strippers. It’s a movie about strippers who do crime, women who, feeling injustice, take their financial security into their own hands. It’s a thriller, and one of the most fun you’ll see this year.
As detailed in Pressler’s article, a group of New York City strippers who found themselves struggling to make ends meet after the market collapse in 2008 left their clientele unemployed and, as a result, out of the Champagne Room.
Ramona—the characters in the film are fictional avatars of real women, with changed names—a maternal figure for the girls, develops a scheme to help get them all back on their feet. Along with Destiny (played by Constance Wu), whom she views as a daughter, and two firecracker newbies named Annabelle and Mercedes (Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer), she would “fish” for vulnerable men at downtown bars who seemed like they could have impressive credit limits, drug them with a cocktail of MDMA and ketamine, bring them back to the club, and charge up their credit cards, taking a portion of the profit.
When the men would complain, they’d shrug: What are you going to do? Tell the cops and your wife that you spent too much money at a strip club?
The story needs a director like Scafaria to do it justice. It’s not dark, seedy, or grim. (Even thrillers can have a male gaze.) It’s raucous and fun. Triumphant, even. These girls were extremely good at what they did. They were smart, driven, and, until they weren’t, careful.
They were businesswomen. Just in this case, the power suits were a designer mini dresses. They were investing in themselves. Like true sharks, they bent the law as far as it would go to get every last dollar; that’s what those men on Wall Street did, after all, and none of them were in jail.
The movie begins with a voiceover that is a bit on-the-nose, but extremely satisfying (a critique that could apply to much of the film, really). “This is a story about control... This time I’m going to do it my way.” It’s Janet Jackson, introducing the first thumping beats to her song “Control,” as the camera heads backstage at the club.
It takes a beat or two into Lopez’s stripping routine as Ramona to register why this movie feels so different. Then it clicks: We’re watching her dance through the eyes of Constance Wu’s character, Destiny, a struggling stripper looking for someone to show her the ropes. She isn’t lusting after Ramona. She is dumbstruck, in awe of her. She wants to be her.
The entire time she is on stage for that routine, Ramona is in control. A toss of her hair, a flash of that heart-stopping smile, or, at one memorable moment, on her back throwing her legs behind her head: She is telling you where she wants you to look, what parts of her body she wants you to see at that moment, and, more, how she wants you to see her.
What you marvel about in the scene is Lopez’s strength, the sheer power of the training and athleticism that allows Ramona to pull off that routine. It’s less “look at her do that” and more “how does she do that?” It’s sexy because Ramona designed it to be that way and wants it to be that way—not just because she is inherently sexy. But it’s not sexy because of a leering camera, exploitative angles objectifying the body, or an overt attention to arousal.
It’s a wholly new thing to witness, as are the scenes backstage at the club, where the women mill about under harsh fluorescent lights. They’re in various stages of undress, sure, but simply because that’s the job. They are going through the motions of getting ready like any worker punching the clock, gabbing and gossiping like colleagues at a watercooler. It’s a setting and film sequence we’ve been taught to be titillated by, because that’s the only way we’ve ever seen it. Here’s it’s all clinical, rudimentary. And, because of that, so much more revealing.
Speaking in generalizations—there are exceptions to every stereotype—typically strippers as we see them on screen are defined by their profession. Every step they take in the movie, every bit of dialogue they are given, every storyline or backstory they have are in service of one thing: How they became a stripper, how they feel about it, and how they will get out of it.
These are fully drawn characters and a plot that largely takes place in private rooms of a strip club, so it tracks that these concerns are present. But because Scafaria’s camerawork, gaze, and perspective have already made us think differently about these scenes and these women, we also instinctively think more deeply about who they are, how they justified their actions, and how being a part of this crime ring made them feel.
It’s clever, then, in more ways than one, to prominently feature Julia Stiles’ character, Elizabeth, the journalist based on New York magazine’s Pressler, who first reported the real-life story.
Stiles is one of the first characters we meet in the film, when we see her interviewing Wu’s Destiny some time after the event, coaxing the story of what happened out of her so it can be told, by and large, through flashbacks.
When Elizabeth meets Destiny, the journalist is a perfect conduit for the audience, which is to say skeptical and judgey. This is a stripper who drugged men and stole their money. At face value, that’s unconscionable. But throughout the film, you watch her start to understand, to empathize. Finally, she can see these girls for who they are, which is far more complicated and nuanced.
It’s gratifying to see Elizabeth factor so prominently into the film, as some of the most memorable lines on screen are lifted almost verbatim from dialogue Pressler managed to get for her article. That includes the one that seems to explain how and maybe even why these women pulled this entire wild thing off: “Men don’t want to admit what happened to them, being victimized by a woman.”
Hustlers is a significant movie, quite possibly one of the most blissfully female and representational movies of the year, using platform stilettos as a high-heeled Trojan horse for conversation about gender politics, economic justice, and dignity. It is also—and this can’t be undersold—a hoot.
When Lopez coos, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” I screamed. The next time you see her, she is lounging seductively on a rooftop sucking on a cigarette in a floor-length fur coat, and nothing has ever looked so fabulous. When she and Wu get in a car, turn on the radio, and “It’s Britney bitch…” blares from the speakers, Lopez shouts, “That’s my motherfucking shit right there!” I felt that.
When Wu relishes their success, saying, “We weren’t just dancers anymore. I was the CFO of my own fucking corporation,” I wanted to stand and applaud. And when Lopez and Cardi B are training Wu on how to give a better lap dance, the trio repeating the mantra “drain the clock, not the cock” over and over, well, forget about it.
You want to soak yourself under every celebratory sprayed bottle of Champagne, invite yourself to every shopping spree, and, hell, even drug a guy or two with the girls. Does all of this get a little repetitive as the film goes on, possibly even slowing things down? Sure, especially since, if you’ve read the article, you know how it all ends. But that’s why Wu and Lopez, especially, deserve accolades for the career-best work they put in here.
To put it simply, they act the shit out of their scenes together. This is an intimate story between Ramona and Destiny, women who leaned on each other, and a bond that saved both their lives. They are forces of nature when they team up for their con, and devastating in its aftermath. From Lopez, it’s the kind of dynamo movie star performance that gets rarer and rarer, where a character so perfectly fits how we view a performer but still upends every expectation.
My friend at Variety, Ramin Setoodeh, keeps describing it as Lopez’s version of Erin Brockovich, by way of Matthew McConaughey’s magnetic performance in Magic Mike. That’s a fair assessment, but it’s also singularly its own beast—and she is a ferocious mama bear in this. She should be a serious Oscar contender, if the studio is smart, in the supporting category; Wu, who gets top-billing, is the true lead of the film, and this is the perfect example of a supporting performance that succeeds at just that: support.
It’s the secret weapon of Hustlers, deployed from minute one: Who wouldn’t support these girls?