ST. LOUIS — "The game is rigged, so stand in the corner or get in the ring."
You could take those words of wisdom and place them in several unfed corridors of the world and easily strike a chord, but for a group of strippers, it was their fight song. When Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) dishes Destiny (Constance Wu) that advice early on in Lorena Scafaria's "Hustlers", you get the idea that it's not just the clothes coming off, but the gloves as well.
Scafaria wrote and directed one of the most underrated films from the past decade, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World". That was a movie I walked into expecting little to nothing but walked out immensely enjoying. There was a naive energy to it that asserted itself firmly, manifesting into laughs and heartfelt sentiment.
"Hustlers" falls into the same category of glorious surprise. A movie I went into asking for a good time and left wondering where it falls among the best I've seen this year. There's no hustling required here; Scafaria's film is just what the doctor ordered for that late summer movie season cold.
"Hustlers" is original, slickly-produced, smartly-written and acted to a tee by a cast that buys in at the jump, making the viewer fall head-over-heels for these "dancers" with a heart of gold and business brains that were far too advanced for some Wall Street tycoons to notice.
Scafaria adapted the story from a viral New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, about a group of opportunistic ladies taking what they feel belongs to them: money, and lots of it. Ramona is a veteran of the nightclub, earning her wages and building an honest living for her daughter, but she's looking for more. When the raw-yet-talented Destiny comes along, she sees the chance for big dollars. What started out as extra money on the side slid into criminal activity.
But the movie never tells you who to root for, or whether or not to let the actions of these women slide. When you see how they are treated by customers at the club, you may not mind watching them get drugged by the same ladies later on in the film. Perhaps, you will take offense to it. Scafaria stays away from murky melodrama, even if there was room to do so with Destiny's child and grandmother or the problems from the other women.
It's the kind of movie that only could have been made by one mind, and that's Scafaria. This is her show and she owns it. Imagine if "Striptease" and "Ocean's 8" had a bigger brain and more convincing players, and you have Hustlers. While there's a grifter aspect to the film, the story has depth and multiple threads. Nothing is taken at surface value or meant to be digested for a cheap thrill. Everything you see on screen has intent.
You are swept up into an exotic wonderland that carries consequences and can be dangerous, but you'll never want to leave.
I'll say this much. Lopez is stunning. She gives her best performance since "Out of Sight", commanding the screen as a woman who's not easy to trust but very easy to love. She forms a friendship with Wu's Destiny that rides the roller coaster of deceit, loyalty, betrayal, and back to earnestness. Lopez never wavers in either stage, giving a performance that has layers and deserves award attention.
Just wait for her show-stopping entrance early on in the film, swinging and dangling from a pole with eyes that could cut through steel. She's not just taking control of the people on set, but every single person in a movie theater worldwide. Once you see her, she owns you. Demi Moore should take notes.
Wu holds her own with Lopez, giving Destiny a wicked combination of earnest intent along with a devilish side that got her in trouble. The story revolves around Destiny, as she recaps the events from the past few years to a journalist (Julia Stiles). As I said earlier, you won't know whether to trust or dislike Destiny, but you won't be able to take your eyes away from her in the process.
Cardi B has a small yet fun role, and bless her soul, Mercedes Ruhl can still command the screen and steal it for a few minutes. Mette Towley reminded me of a young Brittany Murphy. There's something there with her that should be watched, like Elizabeth Debicki from last year's "Widows".
"Hustlers" is the film that "The Kitchen", "Ocean's 8", and "Striptease" wanted to be, but it's also something entirely more. It's a thinking woman's showcase. A true cinematic fist bump of female empowerment that should be consumed by all sexes and races.
Here's a prediction. "Hustlers" will have the same impact that "Crazy Rich Asians" did last year. It will come out of nowhere and win over people instantly. You'll fall in love with these edgy ladies who decided to stop waiting in the basement, instead taking over the penthouse. The R-rating is earned, but that should only weed out the far-too innocent and immature crowd who won't accept this film for what it is: An unapologetic lady power thriller.
Welcome to the big table, Lorena Scafaria. Welcome back to the elite, Jennifer Lopez. At 50 years old, she looks better and more confident than ever.
"Hustlers" works over an audience like the strippers do to their clients: slowly but surely.
This is a very good movie. Don't skip it.