I’ll get the unfortunate news out of the way first. Despite all of the buzz on the internet, Hustlers probably isn’t going to win any Oscars. However, it is easy to see why the film — and Jennifer Lopez’s performance — has garnered so much praise since its release earlier this week.
Hustlers is a funny, heartwarming film on its own. Plus, both Lopez and co-star Constance Wu elevate it even further with their excellent performances. Although the movie might stumble a bit at times, it is easy to overlook any flaws thanks to the splendor and spectacle that pervades almost every scene.
At its core, Hustlers is all about the relationship between its two leads. Wu stars as Dorothy, a young woman attempting to provide for her ailing grandmother by working as a stripper, while Lopez plays Ramona, the more seasoned stripper who takes Dorothy under her wing. After the club where the two work starts to lose business in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ramona convinces Dorothy to help her drug wealthy businessmen and lure them to the club, charging thousands of dollars to their credit cards in the process.
As the two begin their life of crime, the film flashes forward to 2014, as a reporter interviews Dorothy about her past and her intense, often complicated relationship with Ramona.
Now I have to start off this review by talking about Jennifer Lopez. In this role, she is absolutely a force to be reckoned with, and I think her presence makes Hustlers more excellent. Every motion that she takes feels deliberate and powerful, whether she’s spinning around on a pole or offering a fellow stripper a few words of advice and a shoulder to cry on. Ramona is a complex character, as generous as she is manipulative; Lopez not only sells both aspects, she also manages to make them both feel genuine.
As is often seen in film, the manipulative mentor figure seems overwhelmingly evil, but Lopez makes Ramona and her flaws sympathetic. Though she may occasionally let her desire trump the feelings of the people who she cares about, her affection for her found family is never in question. It is a powerful display of Lopez’s talents and charisma, and she is, without a doubt, the brightest star in the film.
Although Lopez certainly dominates the film, Wu’s performance is equally as memorable, if a bit more subdued. She has a lot on her plate, possibly even more than Lopez, as Dorothy is the main point-of-view character and thus has the most well-defined character arc. It might take her a little while to get going — Dorothy’s character in the opening scenes is very nervous and unsure, which doesn’t give Wu much to work with — but once she and Lopez start interacting, all bets are off. She’s particularly good in the interview scenes, despite the character’s complex emotional responses. Just like Lopez, Wu sells the relationship between the two women, for better or worse, and the strength of their performances buoys the entire rest of the film.
Narratively, Hustlers struggled a bit, but not so much that it was noticeable in the moment. The opening act — during which Dorothy and Ramona first become close — was very well paced and did a great job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the movie. The scenes in the strip club were high energy, but also slowed down and gave the characters time to think when necessary. Likewise, there were plenty of moments for the two leads to bounce off of one another, which were consistently the best parts of the film.
However, the second half tended to get a little jumbled. Scenes bounced back and forth between the past and the present, and the transitions were occasionally unclear; in one scene, it seemed like Dorothy had decided to leave Ramona’s group, but in the next, she was right back with the gang. The characters also weren’t given much space for their arcs once the plot began to pick up. It would have been nice to see the relationship between Dorothy and Ramona evolve a little more slowly, as some of the developments felt abrupt.
That being said, the comedic and emotional elements of the film were consistently excellent. There was definitely a fair amount of black comedy on display — one hilarious (yet tense) scene involves the girls taking one of their targets to the emergency room after he swan dives off of his roof in a drug-induced stupor — but it never goes too far. There is also a particularly hilarious and self-deprecating cameo in the first half of the film (that I won’t spoil) that had the entire theater in stitches. On the other side of the coin, there were also plenty of scenes that were pervaded with melancholy or loneliness or joy or love, and every one of those beats hit hard.
All in all, you should definitely go see Hustlers. Even beyond Jennifer Lopez’s performance — which was, again, phenomenal — it has so many well-crafted parts that almost every moment in the theater was a joy, and even if it stumbled a bit with its message, at least it had something that it was trying to say.