In the opening scene of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, we are introduced to Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper at a high-level strip club in New York City. For being in a loud and colorful strip club with a lot of commotion going on, this is a relatively quiet scene, as we watch as Destiny’s conservative attitude and way of dancing doesn’t get her a lot of clients, therefore not getting her a lot of money.
Everything changes for Destiny, and Hustlers, when she witnesses Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) take the stage. Set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”, Ramona has the attention of everyone in the club. Nobody can take their eyes off of her as she majestically spins down and around the center pole as dollar bills rain from the heavens with no end in sight. It is this moment that hooks Destiny to Ramona and hooks the audience to Jennifer Lopez, who gives her best performance in over two decades and one that could garner her her first Oscar nomination.
Jennifer Lopez is a superstar. Whether she’s signing, dancing, or acting in a great movie or a not-so-great movie, she is a presence that oozes charisma, swagger, and immense talent. It is this presence that is key for her performance as Ramona, a performance that is a lot trickier than most people may think.
Lopez’s performance can be called a “movie-star performance”. Other examples of performances like this are George Clooney in Ocean’s 11 and Brad Pitt in Moneyball. These are performances that require someone with a commanding presence because it is necessary for their character. In Ocean’s 11, Clooney must portray the confidence and poise to complete a robbery of three casinos, even when things go awry. Brad Pitt had a similar situation in Moneyball, where he played a General Manager of a baseball team who’s way of assembling his roster changed the way people looked at the entire game of baseball. These are performances that could not have been done by any actor. They required an actor who can own a room, an actor that can present authority and that people would listen to and follow, especially when they have ideas that are against the norm.
This is Lopez. Ramona is the queen of the club and nobody comes close to touching her or double-crossing her. When she accepts Destiny in with open arms, or open fur coats I should say, and shows her the ropes of the club, there is a euphoric feeling that takes over Destiny and the audience. Destiny was in and she was in with the best. This feeling only grows, as Destiny and Ramona start killing it at the club. The money never stops coming in and Destiny is able to help her grandma, as well as spoil herself. Everything seems to be going perfectly.
That is until the financial crash of 2008, which changes everything. The rich Wall Street brokers who flooded the club before have vanished and the money that was coming in is all but gone. Destiny loses contact with the girls at the club, including Ramona, after she gets pregnant and stops working. When she begins working at the club again, she finds out how bad it has gotten, as all the girls she knew before have left and the new strippers rely on performing sexual favors on the customers in order to make decent money. Destiny runs into Ramona at the club one night and Ramona hooks her into her new venture: getting their clients drunk and high enough that they’ll financially take advantage of them and max out their credit cards. Ethically wrong and definitely illegal, it is Ramona’s influence that makes Destiny join. But even though what they are doing is illegal, Lopez delivers the plan with passion and directed anger, you don’t think they’re doing anything wrong and you end up rooting for them and their plan.
We watch the rise and fall of this new plan. We see the good, as the women make more money than they’ve ever seen while also forming a sweet, loving bond of sisterhood and family. But we see the bad as well, as greed, bad decisions, and messy practices lead to the downfall. We see this all in a stylish, gritty way, as Scarfaria makes the ups look glamorous and bright and the downs look dirty and flat. This strong filmmaking, coupled with the most perfect needle drops of 2019 make for a stylish good time.
The third act of the film gets a little muddled, but Hustlers is a great watch. It’s stylish fun and never boring. But this movie rides on the coat-tails of Jennifer Lopez and her performance as Ramona. There aren’t many actors who can convey such gravitas, swagger, and confidence to make you like someone who conjures up a plan as ruthless as this one. But Lopez crushes it and commands every ounce of the screen in one of the best performances of 2019.
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