The movie Hustlers, a based-on-a-true-story portrayal of strippers who ripped off their clientele, aspires to be many things: a caper movie, a feminist take on the strip-club scene, a commentary on sex and power in the age of finance capitalism. But the one thing it is, decisively, is an appreciation of Jennifer Lopez as one of the wonders of our age.
In a way that recalls Bo Jackson in his two-sport years, Lopez’s division of her time between music divahood and movie stardom has left her with a movie career whose highlights are more impressive than the whole. Her perfect turn in 1998’s Out of Sight, her run of bland but successful romantic comedies, the famous flop of Gigli, a few memorably weird (Cell) or trashy (U-Turn) early efforts — she’s done a lot of work, but her celebrity is almost always bigger than her parts.
Hustlers is an exception: The part is made to fit, and Lopez fills it better than any role she’s played since Out of Sight. She’s Ramona, the diva of her club — gorgeous and charismatic and volatile, a doting mother and the trashiest of big spenders, a warm mentor and (eventually) a ruthless criminal. Her personality dominates the movie, and the movie worships her in return.
And that worship is primal, intensely physical. In most respects Hustlers prides itself on anti-prurience, on rejecting the male gaze; the men are gross and panting, or chilly creeps, the dancers are bored and manipulative, and we never see any of the lead actresses without a top. But for J-Lo there is an exception — her big pole dance at the beginning is one long ogle, focused on her most famous asset but reveling generally in how impossibly unaltered the 50-year-old singer-actress seems to be, how radiantly her limbs and curves still glisten and how lithely they still move. For one long sequence, Hustlers loses its propriety and leers like the wolf in Looney Tunes.
The rest of the time, unfortunately, the movie feels too cautious, too fearful of alienating its audience, too content to rest on the inherent interest of its story rather than choosing a definite perspective on the world in which Ramona rules.
That story begins when Destiny (Constance Wu, much better here than as the American ingénue in Crazy Rich Asians), a tightly wound young dancer with a grandmother to support, gets taken under Ramona’s wing during the glory days of pre-2008 Wall Street — when the money was easy, the clubs were flush enough to set ground rules for the private rooms and set up video cameras to enforce them, and Usher (playing himself) might even show up for a dance party.
In the political economy of the movie, sex-positive, empowered-stripper feminism depends on full employment and big financial profits. Take away the good times, and the pigs set the agenda instead: When Destiny returns to dancing in 2011, after having a baby and trying to find a job outside the strip club, she finds that the more desperate post-crash economic scene empowers men to have their way with strippers and replaces women who complain with trafficked Russian flesh.
But she also finds that Ramona, the glorious Ramona, has found a way to fight back against the patriarchy. First she works the bars of New York on behalf of the strip clubs, luring men into their caverns by pretending to be a normal girl who wants to party and then encouraging them to run up an ample tab. But that’s a chancy business, so Ramona gives herself an edge, by spiking her marks’ cocktails with a date-rape-drug mixture, spending on their behalf after they pass out, and shoving them into cabs with the confidence that no man will call the cops and report that a bunch of strippers took advantage of him.
After Destiny joins the crew (which also includes a blonde and a black woman, played by Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer in mostly thankless parts), Ramona’s ambitions expand, and soon they’ve cut the clubs out entirely, taking their marks to hotel rooms instead and exhausting their credit lines themselves. Eventually there is overreach, sloppiness, drugs, a naked broker dumped at an ER, and finally a grift gone wrong, against an undeserving target, that begins the inevitable unraveling.
All of this is recounted by Destiny afterward, to a reporter played by Julia Stiles. (The story is based on a New York magazine piece by Jessica Pressler.) At times the style of her storytelling, the contrast between its outrageousness and Destiny’s self-presentation as a prim suburban mom with nice furniture, suggests that the movie wants you to think of Destiny as an unreliable narrator, even a self-deceiving sociopath. But then at other times, especially as things begin to fall apart, the movie pushes moral responsibility onto Ramona and portrays Destiny as more of the conscience of their gang . . . only to yank things back at the end to a celebratory, sisterhood-forever vibe for both.
In other words, Hustlers can’t decide what kind of message lies beneath all its glitz and criminality. Is it a morality play where the leading ladies are appealing but their descent into crime is ultimately a cautionary tale? An immorality play where the only tragedy is that its four lissome Robin Hoods get caught? Ultimately the movie is stranded in between, dispensing faux tough-gal wisdom (“This whole country is one big strip club,” etc.) that it isn’t willing to go dark enough or deep enough to justify, riding the glory of Jennifer Lopez to the destination of just-entertaining-enough.
This article appears as “A Hustle Gone Wrong” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.