At a key point in “Hustlers” the film’s protagonist, Dorothy (Constance Wu) asks a potentially judgmental character “What would you do for 1,000 dollars?” She then explains that the answer depends on what you have, and what you need. To say it’s a thesis statement for Lorene Scafaria’s propulsive, compelling and delightful dramedy about a group of strippers willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead in the world might be a bit of an overstatement, but the point is made. “Hustlers” is an endlessly entertaining story of haves, have nots, and what happens when that balance of power shifts. It’s also one of the best movies of the year.
The film opens with Dorothy very much in the have-not position, stripping to earn money to help her beloved grandmother get out of debt and struggling to compete with more experienced girls in the club where she’s just started working. That struggle ends when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s most popular dancer, and the two develop a bond that seems almost deeper than sisterhood. Then the 2008 financial crisis hits, devastating the U.S. economy and driving away all of the club’s high-roller clients. With money and time running out, Ramona and Dorothy devise a solution to take what’s theirs from the backs of people who never paid for their crimes, and as the film tells us very early on, it’s only a matter of time before they get in over their heads.
Based on a true story of strippers who milked various clients for thousands of dollars, “Hustlers” unfolds largely from Dorothy’s point of view, as she recollects the triumphs and tragedies of the sisterhood she formed with Ramona and their friends Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer). Like most true stories adapted for the screen, how the story is told is almost more important than what happens (which, of course, we can just look up for ourselves), so Scafaria has to first convince us that the little world she’s building is worth staying in, and then has to convince us that it’s worth fighting for.
To do this, the film takes on a visual persona that seems to be equal parts grit and glamor, as glitter mixes with sweat and Cadillacs roll into damp alleyways. The stripping scenes become almost like fight choreography or elaborate staged heists in Scafaria’s hands, as the girls build confidence which translates to pure bravado even as the tension of what they’re getting away with builds and builds. It’s a film that reminds me of both Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” in terms of the way the action of the work propels both the story and the characters forward despite several time jumps and voiceover narration that might prove tedious in another film. It’s a movie that never seems clouded or unsure of itself, and that sense of cinematic swagger is enough to make you fall in love.
The other key ingredient is the cast, because they have to both make us like them and play unapologetic, uncompromising people who don’t actually care if you like them or not. It’s here that Lopez reminds us all that she’s a supremely talented performer who’s been waiting for the right role to catapult her into the awards season conversation. “Hustlers” is it. Wu is terrific, and she’s supposedly the protagonist of the film, but Lopez steals the movie right out from under her and everyone else. The ensemble is present, and they’re all working at the top of their game, but Lopez is the clear queen of this movie, and it’s about time she got a film capable of highlighting her this way.
These ingredients and others – including a great soundtrack and a couple of fantastic cameos – combine to make “Hustlers” an utterly addictive movie about how far people are willing to go when pushed. It’s a film that, without pretension or preachiness, makes you think about your own place in a system that lets people fall through the cracks, and then pushes back at them for trying to crawl back out. Mostly, though, it’s just fantastically entertaining.
‘Hustlers’ is in theaters September 13.