I’ll be the first to confess. I didn’t even bother to throw Lorene Scafaria’s movie a bone solely because of a) subject matter, which seemed (upon promos) as tawdry to me as Paul Verhoeven’s here
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Showgirls, and b) Jennifer Lopez.
Did I really need to see a movie about strippers? No. The sole topic reeked of the sordid and debased and not really my cup of tea.
And then Jennifer Lopez… How long has it been since Lopez, a credible but frankly, underused performer, gave what anyone could call a ‘standout performance’? Do I have to actually go back two decades ago when she starred against George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight to see a movie that made her register as an actress with dramatic potential and a presence to spare? Has she been making train wreck after train wreck, often recycled formulas of either the stalked woman (The Boy Next Door, Enough), the detective/cop on a case (Angel Eyes, Money Train, and The Cell) or rom-coms (practically everything else) for this long? How can anyone sustain a career with a filmography like this? It’s probably why she’s been more successful as a fashion mogul, even more so than a pop singer. Even that has had its peaks and valleys, with more valleys than actual peaks and her turn in Hustlers wasn’t going to make me come out to see it in theatres.
However, and JLo aside, after seeing so many gangster movies dating back to the 30s in which men do terrible things in order to make a living — often at the cost of their own soul — I realized I was being rather hypocritical, especially in a time when women have to bend over backwards (and in this movie, literally) to score performances that are daring. At the same time I found myself recalling Sweet Charity, which revolved around a prostitute and had its own show stopping number “Big Spender”, which is all Hustlers is about. So there’s a good amount of raunch in Hustlers, a full frontal by Lizzo (questionably necessary but, as I later learned, done with a healthy dose of comic relief), an appearance by Cardi B (unnecessary), and more curves than a hairpin road. I figured, what the hell, once it was out on streaming platforms I’d give it a go, not expect much more than perhaps a version of Widows as directed and visualized by a woman, with some elements of The Kitchen thrown in for good measure. And if I had to see Jennifer Lopez play, um… Jennifer Lopez in yet another bland variation where she does what she calls acting (without ever emoting to save her life), I’d suck it in. She was flanked by a solid cast and a solid director.
Hustlers, based on the 2015 Jessica Pressler article “The Hustlers at Scores”, concerns and focuses on the interivew that Elizabeth, a jornalist based on Pressler (played by Julia Stiles in a mostly thankless part) is conducting on ex-stripper Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny, played by Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians) on her association with Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a stripper she befriended and worked with at Moves, the gentleman’s club thinly based on Scores, located on 28th and 11th Avenue in New York City. As Dorothy/Destiny’s story unfolds we get to see Destiny’s progression into the striping business, which is to say the least, unsuccessful. Once she meets Ramona, who incidentally, makes an impressive, memorable entrance as directed by Scafaria, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, mentors her into learning the ropes, and a partnership based on mutual success is born.
However, the stock market crash of 2008 sends the stripper business into a nosedive as clients, high-paying suits who manage enormous sums of money and will pay in droves for a night of debauchery, fizzle out. Destiny finds herself next to jobless, with no skills to land her a n even basic pay job. She then returns to stripping, but times (and tastes in strippers) have rapidly changed, leacing the women to concoct a scam involving drugs in order to steal away the money from their prospective clients.
I can see why on surface, people — men mainly — would be turned off during or after watching the movie. Even today, watching anything in which women not only take control but basically make fools out of men (whether they deserved it or not and the film does give you both sides of the coin), it comes across as “crossing the line” and can make anyone cringe. Which again, why should it? Has no one seen Deadly Women on Investigation Discovery? Women can be just as horrible as men and then some.
Scafaria, by sticking to her guns and showing the darker, seedier side of feminine behavior, gives her actresses a load of material to work with even when that material is less than savory. And of all of her mostly female cast, Lopez is the one who comes across the strongest, presenting a fully formed sociopath who still maintains a sliver of humanity underneath her tarnished goods. Hers is quite the performance and one that reveals the actress she could be if she put herself to it. She is followed by Wu who allowed herself to play a character who gets sucked into the dark side and splits herself into the mom she is and this other person she will have to face later on when things go wrong. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, and now I can’t wait to see what Scafaria tackles next.