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Hustlers is a raucous true-crime caper story


HUSTLERS
directed by Lorene Scafaria

Jennifer Lopez is great as a stripper turned grifter in this Wall St crime story.

Not long into Hustlers, an electrifying and raucous true-crime caper, we’re introduced to Ramona. She’s a stripper, played by Jennifer Lopez. Clad in not much at all, she appears on stage bathed in neon. To the bluesy groove of Fiona Apple’s Criminal, she performs a routine that could conceivably qualify her in some gymnastic events at the Olympics.

The salivating suits in the front row might coat the stage floor with cash, but the sequence is free of the usual ogling of a strip-joint scene. The year is 2007, the room is packed with Wall St types, and their bubble is about to burst. Adapted from a 2015 New York magazine article about a group of strippers who fleeced the credit cards of traders and executives, Hustlers definitely isn’t another Showgirls.

Watching in the audience is Destiny (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians), a newcomer to the trade both envious and admiring of Ramona’s confidence and poise. When they meet, it binds a relationship of considerable strength and sets in motion a tale of revenge and an attempt to reclaim dignity from poverty.

These rich men, Ramona explains to Destiny, queen to cub, are “degrading, possessive, violent … and they never get in trouble”. Thus, there’s few qualms when, as the thumbscrews of the recession begin to twist, they decide to take back what they think they’re owed with a scheme involving amnesia-inducing ketamine and running those gold cards up to their limits.

Hustlers has a witty memory for the culture of the era and a blackly wicked sense of humour. But what predominates is the vicarious thrill to be had in seeing these women have their fraudulent way with the types who sparked the GFC. However, unlike The Big Short, which was directed by Adam McKay – a producer on this – and turned its crooks into heroes, this film shrewdly avoids making moral exemplars out of Ramona, Destiny and the rest of their girl gang. There is real complexity here, rather than pure exoneration.

At the core of this ethical balancing act is Lopez, who hasn’t been this good – or this surprising – since she shared a car boot with George Clooney in 1998’s Out of Sight. It’s a performance of serious magnetism, physical finesse and charismatic cunning.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.